Reversing the Slide in Voter Support for Libraries

From the Library Journal:

We need a significant shift in our tactics to turn around voter attitudes about the core work of libraries.

The 2018 “From Awareness to Funding” study should inspire deep reflection within the library community about how we have been doing public outreach, voter engagement, and everyday advocacy over this past decade.

As a founder and executive director of EveryLibrary, the only national political action committee for libraries, I am deeply concerned by the top-line loss of voter support for libraries. To see the drop from 73% “possible yes” voters in OCLC’s 2008 report of the same name to the new reality of 2018’s 58% was crushing. At EveryLibrary, we have seen the erosion of voter support and respect for libraries in polls and surveys from dozens of towns, cities, and counties over our short time working on library campaigns.

. . . .

I am most deeply troubled by the declining perception about the core work of libraries and core competencies of librarians. When there is a nine point drop in the perception about libraries offering “Free access to books and technology that some people may not be able to afford,” how do we recapture that narrative? Today, 20% fewer voters agree that “the library is an excellent resource for kids to get help with their homework” than ten years ago (71% then, 51% now). How is that possible when every story we tell is about a kid learning to read in order to succeed later in life? How do we fight a hostile city hall or recalcitrant county commission when the feeling that “having an excellent public library is a source of pride” is only shared by 53% of voters (20% fewer than in the 2008 report)?

. . . .

Voter perception of librarians as “Friendly and approachable” has fallen from 67% to 53%. Perception of librarians as “True advocate[s] for lifelong learning” has dropped from 56% to 46%. The feeling that librarians are “Knowledgeable about my community” fell from 54% to 42%. I hope we have found the bottom at 31% of voters (down from 40% ten years ago) who think that librarians are “Well known in the community.”

Our core messaging and value propositions have taken a massive hit. This decline cannot persist if we expect libraries to be funded through taxpayer support. Ten years ago, three-quarters of voters thought that libraries were important for youth. Today, it is down to just two-thirds. What have we been doing that made us lose this kind of ground? In 2018, only 55% of Americans think that “if the library were to shut down, something essential would be lost.” It was 71% ten years ago.

Link to the rest at Library Journal

20 thoughts on “Reversing the Slide in Voter Support for Libraries”

  1. I remember when libraries were about books. All through highschool, I lived in the library and read so many books. Now I go in there and there are kids playing loudly all over the half of the building dedicated to them, the shelves are three quarters empty and the books that ARE there are twenty years old. The majority of new books are YA and child oriented. Great for those who read those genres, not so useful to me. Why should I go in there if I can’t find a book I need/want to save my life?

    Oh, and lets not forget, the books they DO have that are part of a series? Never book one. MAYBE books two and three of a trilogy. Often, books 4, 6, 9 and maybe 10. And yes, I’ve checked the catalogs for them, not just the shelves.

    • As a library trustee for a rural library system, I can tell you that you are describing an under-funded library. Keeping current books on the shelves, buildings that effectively serve both young and old are both expensive.

      For us, the recession was a godsend. It came before my time as a trustee, but the library board at the time reacted quickly and effectively to tighten belts and reprioritize spending. When real estate stabilized and property tax revenues returned, the board was extremely cautious. They did not rescind the austerity measures and simultaneously floated levies and increased our tax base so that we are currently fairly sound. But not every system was so lucky.

      As a trustee, I am eager to allocate funds to youth programs and books for children and teenagers. Why? They are the library users and tax payers of the future; investing in services for them is an investment in future libraries. Of course, we are obliged to serve the entire community, but logic behind emphasizing children and young people is hard-headed pragmatism.

      When I look at the budget, I see costs rising faster than revenues. A public service is not like business: our circulation is rising, indicating that our customers like our product, but their enthusiasm for our product means increased costs while revenues remain constant. Coming from business, it took me a while to get my arms around that.

      Effectively selling our product is not a win. To me, that means every increase in circulation has to be balanced with an increase in efficiency. For most businesses today, that means increased digitization. Libraries today, at least ours, have most of the costs have been digitally sucked out already. Computerized catalogs and circulation have been around for quite a while now.

      Although ebooks should be a lot cheaper than paper to circulate, they don’t seem to be. The publishers levy a heavy premium on ebooks and ebooks have some hidden costs. Fine revenue is miniscule compared to tax revenue, but with every uptick in digital circulation, there is a corresponding downtick in fine revenue. And for every ebook we buy, we don’t buy a paper book, which means the shelves are more thinly populated, which is also not desirable. And ebooks have a subtle downside: we basically hand over the quality of our service to the ebook system like Overdrive.

      I am not complaining. I am glad to volunteer my best to help the library keep moving ahead, but I like to see challenges as clearly as I can, and I see a lot of them. The most difficult is too much zero-sum thinking: if some kid gets to read a book for free, it must be a loss for me. Never mind that the kid may turn into a good citizen who makes my life better, never mind that a vibrant library improves the quality of life in its community.

      • Re: “fine revenue”

        On my last RL trip to the library I brought back a stack of childrens books that somehow were almost a week overdue. $20. Since then it’s been Overdrive exclusively.

        Remember Blockbuster? “fine revenue” was an important part of their income. Then Netflix came along with their gut-punch marketing tagline “no more late fees, ever”. Look who is out of business and who isn’t.

        • Our system does not charge fines on children and youth materials. Our board is generally in favor of minimizing or getting rid of overdue fines for most patrons unless there is evidence that someone is abusing the system. Drawing the line between unintentional mistakes and intentional abuse is not easy and there are some statutory needles to thread.

          We know that a common reason a patron quits using the library is they have accumulated substantial fines that they can’t afford to pay. The computer system spots these folks easily and we try to work with them because they are often the people who need our services most.

          As I said, fine revenue is very small, but it still shows up on the books and it is one more factor to consider when trying to maximize library services.

          As for Netflix v Blockbuster, Netflix is one of my favorite technology companies. I bring them up often in discussions of the future of libraries. I am convinced that they understand the technology of the cloud even better than Amazon. Their cost of doing business must be very low.

          Long before I got involved with managing libraries, I thought Blockbuster’s fines were not a good business plan– they might have done better to lengthen their loans and increase their prices instead. They could have adjusted prices to keep their revenue the same and not have been so obnoxious. But streaming is what really knocked Blockbuster out– more convenient, equal quality, and cheaper to supply than disks and tapes– that’s tough to compete against.

      • Out of curiosity: do you take advantage of Gutenberg ebooks?
        Can you?

        Not sure if your ebook lending servers allow you to add PD ebooks or legally donated ebooks from publishers and authors.

        • I wish we could. The problem is that our tiny IT department is not up to deploying and managing a system themselves. I’d like to see a consortium of libraries put together a system that would support more digital independent non-profit digital publishing.

          I have grandiose ideas about compensating authors via a form of a private distributed blockchain ledger maintained by the members of the consortium. I haven’t tried to work out the numbers, but I suspect such a system could be much harder to scam and fairer than KU and be more beneficial to authors, readers, libraries, and the communities that support libraries.

          But I write books now, not develop systems, so someone else will have to figure it out. 🙂

          • One thing I would do if I were running a library would be to create a couple of DVD images of PD ebooks and audio books–one for kids, one for adults–and invite folks to bring in a blank DVD to burn themselves a copy.
            Or, if the budget allowed it, I’d give them away.
            (They’re 25cents a pop after all, a lot less than the cost on one pbook to say nothing of a few thousand on a disk.)


            (For kids I’d start with the OZ books, Twain, Alcott, etc. Verne, Wells, and H. Beam Piper’s LITTLE FUZZY, too, to build a taste for SF. 😉

            I would also talk to Jeff Bezos about Amazon doing a library version of their low-end Fire tablet with a hardwired timer for, say, two weeks at a time, that could be checked out for ebook/audiobook use only. Every other function deleted. People could use it for PD content or their own private Amazon account. The things go on sale for $30 a couple times a year which is in line with library pbook prices, no?

            A good way to promote literacy and ebooks, no?

            Then again, I’m sure someone somewhere would find something offensive about promoting digital reading.

            • I like the idea of burning DVDs. I will see if we can do it.

              As for a “Library Fire”, I’ve read of a number of libraries lending tablets with mixed success. The issue is not only the initial cost, but the long term maintenance, which is more training patrons and answering their questions, not just break/fix stuff. Doesn’t mean it can’t be done, just that we don’t know how to do it right. Yet.

  2. Local libraries will (reluctantly) do Inter-Library Loan. Other than that, they seem to be where parents park their kids while shopping, free internet for the homeless, videos, and a few shelves of the same stuff they’ve always had – travelogues, cookbooks, romances, “classics”, and children’s books.

    That’s the city library. The county and state libraries are little better. Well, the state library has some periodicals and reference material on microfilm, but good luck being able to get access to it. Ordinary taxpaying patrons don’t qualify. And it’s downtown at the state capitol, in an area where you want at least a can of pepper spray on the hike from the (blocks away) parking lot.

    Given that a trip to the library costs time and gas, and it still takes a week for an ILL, any Amazon used book at $0.01 + $3.99 shipping is cheaper than a “free” library book. And you don’t have to make another trip to the library after you finish it…

    > help with homework

    I’m drawing a blank here.

  3. As more and more books become easily available on the market, and the Web offers more and more research resources, the rationale for public funding weakens.

      • Public funding is proving to come with its own strings as well as being maybe too reliable, isn’t it?

        The internet may be somewhat less reliable than authoritative sources, but it does update a lot more often and it is inherently quiet. 😉

  4. Times have changed. When I was a child, books were rare and precious commodities. By the time I graduated from high school, I had collected one bookshelf filled with books. My mother took us on biweekly trips to the library to borrow books.

    My five-year-old grandson has two bookcases filled with books. Yes, his parents are a lot better off financially than mine were, and coming from a family of readers, he’s just as likely to get books as he is toys as presents, so I don’t think he goes to a library all that often.

    Where you once went to the reference section of the library to research term papers, today’s kids are more likely to use this thing called the internet.

    And then there are the difficulties mentioned by R Coots and TRX. My local branch instituted “quiet hours,” certain specified hours on certain days were kids (and adults) were supposed to be quiet, meaning they weren’t the rest of the time. They almost never had any of the books I wanted to read. I’d go online, reserve the book, then wait for it to be transferred in from a different branch or get through the long hold queue on popular books.

    I love libraries, but now I think it’s more a case of I love the idea of libraries. Practically, I have almost 600 books in my TBR collection on my Kindle, and I have 20 shelves of reference materials in my office. I only make the effort to use the library for trad published books that have unconscionable price tags.

    • Many librarians resent the stereotype of the shushing librarian and they may have overcompensated a bit by not shushing enough. We’ve used several strategies. We have a written policy that says we will stop anyone from interfering with others use of the library. We have teen and children’s areas that are somewhat acoustically isolated. And our branch manager’s are encouraged to manage noisy events to avoid prime times for folks who like quiet. Not perfect, but we keep trying to satisfy everyone.

      I fully understand: books are much more accessible today than they were a few decades ago and libraries have to evolve with that reality. For myself, I use the library for books I want to read, but not keep around. I try to buy books after I have read them and decide that I want to keep them at hand. Doesn’t always work out that way. But when I was a kid, we couldn’t afford to buy many books, so the library was my only source for books.

      I hope the role of libraries is changing, becoming more of a place for communities to gather around civility and learning, less of an economic necessity driven by high book prices.

      • When I want to gather with a community ‘around civility and learning’, I generally do it online – here, for instance. No library in the world is ever going to offer the experience of being able to talk in real time, or close to it, with other writers all around the world, to learn from them, and occasionally share my own point of view. The role you envision for libraries is not one that interests me in the slightest.

        My principal use for libraries would be to get research materials, including academic publications, if necessary on interlibrary loan. But public libraries are more or less a washout for that, and not being a faculty member of any college or university, I don’t have access to the academic libraries that actually offer the service I want. I therefore have to do without it.

        Librarians are never going to get me back into the library by telling me that I ought to want the things they are offering, instead of offering the things I actually do want.

        • I use inter-library loan quite often to get materials from research libraries. Our system doesn’t charge for it, and I happen to know that we have an employee whose day I have made by requesting esoteric stuff, but I understand some public libraries do charge for the service. If I can find it on, they can usually get it for me. We also have an inter-operational agreement with a local university that allows our cardholders to check out books from the university library. I use that too. As an alumnus I have some borrowing privileges, but the inter-op is less hassle.

          Everyone to their own tastes. One reason I like hanging out at the library is I run into people that I wouldn’t have met on line.

          I agree that there are self-righteous types among librarians who are all too willing to tell you what you ought to like, but I find most are simply eager to offer a service and would rather respond to requests rather than assert their own opinion. I have found library people to be the most non-judgmental group I have ever met.

          • I live in a city that is spending $250 million it hasn’t got to build a palatial new downtown library, and believe you me, they are trying hard to sell people on the idea that this facility is what everyone is supposed to want. If you don’t think that a city of 1.3 million people needs the most expensive library building on the continent, if you think that library services would be better decentralized than all served up in one location in the central business district, if you point out that the building is grossly overpriced for the square footage and structural requirements, or if you object to it on any other grounds, you are called names that begin with ‘illiterate’, ‘uneducated’, and ‘philistine’, and go on from there.

            I have found the people who lobby for library funds to be one of the most judgemental groups I have ever met.

            As for ILL – it’s all very well to order academic publications through the public library, but their librarians are of no help in tracking down which sources you need. If you already have a list of the precise journals and papers that you want, the librarians may or may not get them for you; but how do you get such a list? That’s where academic librarians come in; and those are not found at the public library.

  5. I prefer public funding to funding via privacy invasion and annoying ads. You get what you pay for. The question is how you pay.

    Sure. There will always be people who prefer public funding for one reason or another. But the zillions who disagree weaken the rationale and support for public funding.

  6. The library is the only way I read trad pub books these days, unless it’s something I expect to want to keep. It’s also how I sample trad pub authors and series. I wonder how many other people do the same thing, and if trad publishers are aware of that.

    And I could not afford to keep up with my kid’s book consumption if it wasn’t for the library. There’s a reason why libraries give over lots of space to kids and teens. They’re the biggest customer base.

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