Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Why Public Libraries Close

This report is now available from Webjunction: Why Public Libraries Close This report was also presented at the American Library Association in Anaheim California.

I was very interested in this report. It isn't extensive as From Awareness to Funding which I wrote about in three parts. However, the Awareness report would seem to explain why libraries close more than this report does.

Very few libraries have actually closed, very few
I read about this program in Library Journal when they reviewed the programs for the annual conference. It was rather slammed. The quote from Library Journal's review was, "Sounds alarmist, very few have actually closed. Very few."

One Tenth of One Percent
After reading this report, the statement that very few libraries have closed seems entirely accurate. According to the ALA Fact sheet there are over 123, 291 libraries in the United States, 16,543 are public libraries. This report makes an assessment between the years 1999-2003. During that time 438 public libraries closed. Well...that's not accurate, 134 libraries actually closed. The first number includes libraries that have closed and re-opened or where services were merged, replaced, etc. It doesn't mean closed and no services. The 134 libraries closed are closed with no services and no alternatives. What is the ratio between the number of libraries in the United States versus the number that have actually closed in a four year period. One Tenth of One Percent!

More than a few flaws
The report only retrieved anecdotal information from one library staff member at each library. I know from my own research into various best practices with libraries that it's important to get the person in charge, but then also speak to front line staff. For this research report, maybe just sticking to the data or using local newspapers may have been a better approach. It is hard to say what exactly is intended here. This approach doesn't seem to stand on solid ground.

Some segments from the report:
The categories of closure are good as well as analysis as to why libraries fail. The ongoing issues are extremely useful:

1) specific actions to minimize potential impacts of the closure on existing library users are rarely if ever taken.

(my comment, how many libraries have used story time, closure, and other items as a political pawn when other cost savings could be implemented?)

2) during the 1999-2003 time period of this study, the socioeconomic and demographic
characteristics of the population within the immediately surrounding 1 mile radius the closed library tended to be poorer, less educated, and with more renters than homeowners when compared to the U.S. population in calendar year 1999 year as a whole.

(my comment, the poor are most affected. However, according to the Awareness report, they provide the least amount of support to the library.)

3) migration of America’s population to large population centers may be creating
problems for rural libraries.

(my comment, we actually have the opposite effect. More people are moving to our community because of the low cost of living. This has created greater usage and strain on our services that we have struggled with. More houses mean more one time revenue, but not more operating revenue. That's a entirely different long term problem.)

Big error in data

"It was during this time researchers discovered a large number of the 438 outlets identified as potentially closed were never closed. Further discussions with the identified contact person for each of these “closures” showed that most had no idea on why the library was not listed in the FSCS database for that particular year. A few suggested that it could be due to their non-reporting of the requested FSCS data for that particular year but they remained unsure about this anomaly. There were 192 library outlets that fell into this “unsure why we weren’t listed in that year’s FSCS report” category out of the original 438 outlets. There was no further processing or analysis done on the libraries in this

(my comment, My library is listed twice. One as part of a system and one as a stand alone. I have no idea why that is, nor do I know how to fix it.)

The general conclusion about libraries was the best part. Even though not that many libraries closed, the advice to avoid it is very beneficial. Here is some advice from the front:

"Finally, question seven asked advice from the librarians for how to prevent negative
closures from happening...
Neighborhood advocacy would help prevent closures

“prior to opening a branch” make sure the library systems can sustain it – ...

Shopping centers might not be the best fit for libraries, if rent changes frequently or it is inconvenient for users to reach...

if the library does control or own the facility, possible closure can not be controlled...

Grants that are not recurring should not be used to open libraries.

open hours that are convenient for its users, in one instance banker’s hours where no one could get to the library led to its demise.

maintain an attractive building with services and resources that people need and can access. "p 25

In summary, it can be seen that public library closures are usually caused by the evolving needs of the local libraries (e.g., remodeling, branch relocations, library mergers) or due to factors that are somewhat outside of the library’s direct control (e.g., reduction in funding or staffing). Lack of library use at the closed library is not the primary reason for most public library closures. p 25

I feel really good after reading this report. There aren't that many libraries closing. The title is a bit alarmist, but not misleading. In fact, the advice provided on how to avoid a closure is gold. It is extremely valuable to emphasize meeting the needs of the community. We are building a new branch and we are looking carefully at the hours and resources so that we don't get in over our heads before we even open the building. It is far more difficult to pull services, than to never have provided them. In the end, I feel good since it confirms the comment, "very few libraries have closed."