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Wither libraries? Not so fast, new survey says

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A survey of 1,200 libraries finds increased demand for online and digital resources, and a visible shift of funding in this direction. Library budgets have also stabilized in the wake of the recent economic downturn.

With all the information in the world at your fingertips via Google and the Internet, who needs traditional libraries, right?

Wrong. Libraries are feeling the same kinds of pains -- call them paradigm-shift pains -- as many other institutions and businesses face in this globalized, digitized age. But they're evolving and adapting with the times. The recent economic slump may have savaged many public and academic library budgets, and global digitization may be changing their mission. But a new survey of 1,201 libraries across North America finds spending has leveled, demand for services is up, and many are accelerating their moves to digitized offerings.

In the recent recession, for example, many people relied on libraries as their workstations for access to the Internet and career resources. In an era of high unemployment, coupled with high demand for skilled, computer-savvy workers, libraries have become the bridge the economy needs to sustain growth.

In my work with Unisphere Research and Information Today, Inc. (ITI), I had the opportunity to conduct and publish the study, which looked at the budgets, spending plans and priorities of directors, administrators, librarians and other library professionals in public, academic, government and special libraries.

Among the key findings, the study concluded that while more libraries saw budget decreases in 2010 than increases, budgets are expected to level out in 2011. And, in contrast to other types of library spending, expenditures on technology held steady throughout the economic downturn.

One of the more surprising findings in the study was that despite reports that budget-strapped communities have been cutting library services to the bone, public libraries as a whole were actually outpacing academic and special libraries in spending increases. While some caution needs to be exercised in viewing these results, given the steady annual cuts many public libraries have been experiencing in the recent past, the survey found that a full 37% of public libraries actually increased budgets in 2010, with 30% projecting increases for 2011.

The study points to strong increases in spending and support for online subscriptions, Ebooks and digital content collections and information services. Keeping up with changes in information technology (64%) and implementing or creating strategic plans that establish a roadmap going forward into a new era (62%) dominate the long-term thinking at North America’s libraries.

  • Percentage of libraries seeing increased demand for digital resources:              72%
  • Percentage of libraries seeing increased demand for traditional print resources:              43%

Libraries report a significant surge in patron demand for digital information and technology resources.  Overall, 72% say they have seen increased demand for electronic or digital resources, and 43% percent report more demand for traditional print materials.

Sixty-seven percent report increased demand for wireless access, and 62% have seen a surge in demand for Web access. Four out of ten say there's been more demand from their facilities for Ebooks, and 36% saw more demand for job search and career development information. Thirty-three percent report increased demand for training and technical information.

While many libraries were faced with hard choices as to how to pare down their annual budgets, spending for online information remained noticeably stable, the survey finds. Libraries report almost twice as much of an increase in demand for electronic or digital resources than printed materials. However, print still commands a lion’s share of annual budgets, which average about $1 million per institution.

Consider the important role libraries have and will continue to have in providing in-depth knowledge and access to the world's most authoritative sources.  Would you want your case handled by a lawyer who received all his training and updated his skills by Googling?  I didn't think so.

A topic we've discussed at the blogsite is the wide disconnect between the growing demand for skilled workers by employers (help-wanted ads are at peak levels), and the large pool of unemployed and under-employed people.This is a key area where libraries can help bridge the gap.

One respondent, department head of a Southeastern US public library, put the challenge in these terms:

“While the need for the existence of the library institution is being challenged, the fact is that a large majority of the population still remains 5–10 years or more behind the technology in regards to training and being able to comfortably utilize the range of technology available. The need for digital transliteracy is becoming more apparent with the high unemployment and upcoming career opportunities. Libraries are [in a] position to meet that need and others.“

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Joe McKendrick

Contributing Editor

Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure