Public Library Closures:
On Not Dropping Like Flies
For those who don’t have the patience for a long, rambling essay with lots of background and detail, here’s the tip of the pyramid:
As far as I can tell, at most seventeen public libraries within the United States closed in 2008 or 2009 and have apparently not reopened as of March 2012. That’s 17 out of 9,299 (in 2009) or 9,284 (in 2008) or 0.2%.
With the exception of one bookmobile (operating as a reporting library, not a mobile branch of another library) potentially serving 15,656 people, the closed libraries were very small. Fourteen of them served fewer than 1,000 people (that’s the Legal Service Area, the potential number of patrons); the other two served 1,000 to 2,499 people. Of the fourteen, for that matter, nine served fewer than 350 people—and five served 200 or fewer. The closed libraries accounted for 0.002% of 2007 library circulation—less than one of every 49,000 circulations. In other words, nearly all of the libraries closing in 2008 and 2009 (and all of the brick-and-mortar libraries) were very small libraries serving very few people. (Note the difference: 0.2% of libraries—with 0.002% of circulation, two orders of magnitude smaller.) Did these libraries close because the communities had emptied out to the point where no community services could remain? That’s a tougher question; we’ll look at the communities later on.
Why does this matter? I’ll get to that—and to why these figures may be different than some you’ve heard, read or assumed. The answer is not that I’m trying to make everything in public libraryland seem rosy. It is that I believe it behooves librarians to know what they’re talking about—that even more than in most fields, they have a responsibility to know the facts behind their assertions.
On November 25, 2011, I posted “How many US public libraries have actually closed?” on Walt at Random. That post includes my reason for asking the question and some additional details, so I’ll include the whole thing here:
When reading various posts and articles from various directions–some celebrating the promised end of public libraries, most bemoaning the decline of public libraries–I keep running into comments about so many public library closures.
Which got me to wondering: How many public libraries have actually closed permanently in the last year or decade?
Let’s be more specific: How many library agencies, defined as libraries that report statistics to their state library and/or IMLS, have shut down with no expectation of reopening, or have been closed two or more years?
One percent of the 9,000-odd library agencies in the US? Five percent? Half of one percent?
I can’t find good info at ALA. In fact, when I go looking for library closures, I see some surprising ambiguities. For example, you have the wifty claim that 15 states reported closure of “fewer than two” library outlets last year. Problematic on two counts: In what world is “fewer than two” anything other than one (unless it’s zero)–and what’s an outlet?
Going back a little, I see ALA press releases on the subject of the closure of the library in Colton, California in November 2009. Which is a tragedy–except that the Colton library was reopened within a year.
I didn’t find good info at IMLS [Institute of Museum and Library Services] either, although maybe I didn’t know where to look.
I’m certainly not trying to minimize budgetary problems. I know lots of branches have been shut down or had hours reduced; I also know that some libraries quite appropriately close some branches for the sake of the health of the library system as a whole.
(Where I live, two small branches are only open a couple of days a week, if that–but the result is that the main library, in a relatively compact city, has robust seven-day-a-week operating hours. Would we be better off if all three locations had reduced hours or no book budgets? Not in my opinion–but then, I’m closest to the main anyway. And I’m aware that one of the two branches is in a part of town where huge construction plans didn’t work out very well…)
I think the question deserves an honest answer because the assumption that libraries are closing like crazy hurts libraries–it makes it easier for those who don’t like public libraries to suggest that they’re anachronisms in any case.
Maybe there should even be two more refinements:
How many public library agencies have closed in towns/cities that are still themselves viable communities? (If a town’s lost its schools, its businesses, its post office because nobody really lives there any more, the library’s likely to go as well…)
How many public library agencies have opened in the last year or decade? Do library closures exceed new library openings?
If someone can point me to an authoritative and reliable source, I’d be pleased.
It is at least partly the case that I didn’t know how to look, at least for the last bullet there. You can impute the number of library openings by comparing different years of the IMLS database—and, since 2008, you can determine the libraries that are reported as closed, although not whether they’ve stayed closed. At the time, I hadn’t figured out how to open the massive IMLS Access databases without Access (which I don’t own) or how to parse the flat files. Since then, I’ve figured out how to open the databases in Excel—and, thanks to some commenters, I had a better idea where to look.
Let’s get those last two questions out of the way first. At the moment, the most recent IMLS report is for 2009 (the 2010 report will be out this spring). Ignoring libraries that didn’t report open hours, all of which either are reported as closed or are libraries within a U.S. territory (primarily Puerto Rico), there are 9,257 public libraries in the 2009 database. (That’s a little higher than the 9,184 I use in my forthcoming book, a number taken from HAPLR reports; HAPLR excludes a small number of libraries that do incomplete reporting to IMLS.)
The 1999 IMLS database (for public library agencies, not branches) has 9,048 rows. So if you ignore all the mergers and other changes, there were 209 more libraries in 2009 than in 1999—after all closures are taken into account (the 2009 figure is for libraries that report open hours and circulation). The actual number could be slightly higher or slightly lower, given that different libraries sometimes merge into a single system (at which point there’s a central agency and more than one outlet or branch) and branches of a system sometimes break off as independent libraries. Let’s say “roughly 200”—which isn’t a lot (a little more than 2% net growth), but is still a positive number: There have almost certainly been more public library openings than closures in the past decade.
I received two well-informed comments (and responded to both). Dr. Steve Matthews, who writes the 21st Century Library Blog, had this to say:
Good questions. I tried to address this issue last March (Library Closure Numbers Are Not Too Bad), but found the same issues—no current numbers. Being at a state library, I understand the annual reporting system, but still, it seems that something this important should have more in-depth and current data attention. What I was able to guesstimate was 0.4% fewer libraries since 2005.
Linking through to Matthews’ post, he notes the slow but steady increase in the number of public libraries as reported by IMLS (running through 2008, and his numbers are slightly different from mine), then notes:
But we know through media and professional channels that many libraries have closed in the past two years. [Emphasis in original.]
In June 2010, Karen Muller addressed the question “How many closings?” for ALA, but did not actually answer the question. She wrote for ASK the ala librarian: Q&A from the ALA Headquarters Library, that; “The most reliable count of the number of public library service outlets comes from the annual IMLS Public Library Survey,
So, we in the ALA Library consulted our colleagues in the ALA Office for Research and Statistics (ORS), who said:
As you can imagine from a data standpoint, the number of closed libraries is a swiftly moving target. Even the announcements of potential closures in Charlotte, Philadelphia, Reno and Boston sometimes change from week to week as many library advocates stand up for keeping their branches open—often ultimately leading to reduced hours rather than complete closures.
The most recent information we have from the Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study (PLFTAS) was gathered during the fall of 2009, and the news has certainly gotten worse since then. At that time, 13 state library agencies reported they were aware of library closures in their states due to budget issues. Twelve states reported it was fewer than five, with Indiana reporting between 5-10 closures of branches.
Matthews takes this data and extrapolates to “an average of two libraries per state” (yield 24) “and a conservative six for Indiana,” coming up with “at least 30 library closings by the fall of 2009.” He then estimates another 30 closings in 2010. Why? Because 2010 was “probably the worst year for libraries in recent memory.” So he comes up with 60 libraries closed since the 2008 IMLS report, thus yielding “99.6% as many libraries as existed five years ago.”
Except, except… Indiana reported branch closures, not library closures. There’s no reason to assume an average of two—or that those two were libraries, not branches. And these numbers don’t take into account temporary closures: Libraries that shut down and then reopen a year or two (or three) later.
Matthews finds the numbers encouraging:
Not to minimize in any way the loss for the staff and communities of those library closures, but that is not actually too bad on an industry-wide scale. I’m certain many businesses lost much more than that in outlets and chain stores in the past five years. There certainly are lots of empty businesses in my city, and no doubt in virtually everyone’s city.
What’s my point? My point is, why shouldn’t somebody report these numbers? Why act like it’s a terrible secret that can’t be spoken? I actually think these numbers of library closures are encouraging. Libraries could be doing much worse, all things considered.
Why not let the profession know that on the whole libraries are doing better than most businesses during this economic crisis? Everybody knows libraries have closed—some especially tragic closures too.
But, the good news is that (in spite of still largely offering 20th Century services to 21st Century clients) libraries as institutions are doing OK. [Emphasis in original.]
“Everybody knows libraries have closed”—much as “we know…that many libraries have closed.” But are these libraries actually closed? Have they remained closed? (I won’t get into the whole “20th century services to 21st century clients” issue: That’s one where I suspect I disagree with Dr. Matthews, but it’s a different topic.) I certainly agree with the penultimate paragraph—and it’s worth noting ALA’s solidly, consistently alarmist pose. I believe ALA ORS could have a legitimate count of closed and reopened libraries, and frankly fault it for not having one, one that distinguishes between branches and systems.
Michael Golrick also commented—but focused on library outlets, that is, branches (of which there are more than 16,000). I was and am focused on administrative entities, because the closure of outlets within a system is so much more complex than the failure of an administrative entity. Golrick notes the problem with reporting closures even at the state level—and that IMLS is now gathering some additional data. That’s true; since 2008, actually, IMLS has been a reasonable source for library closings.
This followup post appeared on January 25, 2012 at Walt at Random. I note that I hadn’t received actual answers and that “I asked the question again recently in a comment grumping about the lead sentence of a LISNews story, a sentence beginning “In an age of library closings”:
Since you lead with that, I’ll repeat the question I’ve asked elsewhere (with no results): Do you–does anyone–have any actual data on actual library system closings? Not branches, not temporary shutdowns, but public libraries that actually disappear–or, let’s say, shut down for at least three years?
Has it been 1% over the last 10 years? 0.5%? 0.1%?
Have there been more public libraries (again, not branches–those are inherently more temporary) closed or opened over the last decade?
Or do we just conveniently talk about lots of library closures, despite lack of any real evidence that this is happening? I’m not trying to minimize the effects of branch “closures” or reduced hours, but I’d sure like to see some facts…
I was particularly frustrated because the LISNews story was about a brand-new public library: A library opening. I found the negative lead unfortunate, albeit typical. Although, as it happens, the new Topanga Library is (ahem) a branch—part of the County of Los Angeles Public Library, one of the largest public library systems in the nation, serving more than four million people.
My comment became a separate post. Blake Carver responded with a list of “closures”—all of which, as far as I can tell, were branch reductions, not library system closures. That list numbered four or five incidents over five or six years. Here’s Carver’s basis for the negativity consistently displayed at LISNews:
As someone who scans maybe 100 stories about libraries a day I'd say the general trend is 90% terrible for budgets as reported in local newspapers. I don't know that there is a huge wave of closings though. It wouldn't surprise me if there was one coming though. (Note: Huge Wave could mean numbers closer to 20, not 2,000).
Carver also rejects my attempt to distinguish between library systems and branches. Indeed, the comments on that post seemed to go in all sorts of directions, none of which answered what I originally thought was a simple question. (I won’t cite and discuss those comments—this piece is too long as it is!)
The remainder of the January post briefly discussed why I was focusing on library systems/agencies, not branches, and why (at the time) I was unable to use IMLS data (a problem I’ve since resolved). The key paragraphs
Note that, in this question and elsewhere, I’m asking about libraries and library agencies–not individual branches. That is, I’m working off the 9,000+ number (closer to 9,200), not the 16,000+ number.
Why? Because branches come and go as part of how cities change. Yes, the temporary or permanent loss of a branch affects those served by it, but it’s of a different nature than the shutdown of an entire public library system. (Library branches also appear more easily than full library systems…):
At that point, I knew enough to know one partial answer: “The net number appears to be negative.” That is, more libraries opened over a decade than closed. So I focused again on the narrower question and on why I care:
My question still stands: How many public libraries (not branches) have actually closed for extended periods, let’s say two years or more? How many of these are in towns and cities that have not become ghost towns?
Yes, there are budgetary problems. (When aren’t there?) Yes, public libraries need more funding.
But to me the primary effect of the “public libraries are closing all over the place!” meme is self-fulfilling prophecy and grist for the mill of libertarians and those who dislike public libraries: Oh well, they’re already shutting down like crazy, that’s just the way it is.
Which, as I suspected, is simply not true.
A statement that I’ll stand behind—both that it’s not true and that it’s a dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy.
The only comment on that post came from Will Robinson:
I live in Columbia, South Carolina and although the economy is one of the worst in the nation our libraries have stayed open. People depend on so many of their services, especially when unemployment is this high, that I think there might be a revolt if services were cut. I think around the country the urban libraries have been hit hardest. Detroit closed four branches if I remember. Here is an issue brief from ALA.
As I noted, to the extent that the ALA brief is about library closings at all, it’s about branches closing, not libraries closing:
For example, given changes in Detroit’s population, is it possible that it simply makes sense to have fewer branches open longer hours? (Just asking, not assuming.) That’s why I’m focusing on libraries (administrative agencies) rather than branches.
It’s mostly about decreased hours, staffing cuts and other very real budget issues, none of which I either deny or regard as unimportant—although, frankly, given the depth of loss of public funds during the recession, one really needs to ask whether public libraries are faring worse than other public agencies, not just whether they’re suffering. (Now there’s a big research topic: Are public libraries being undersupported compared to other public agencies? I have no idea.)
As to whether urban libraries have been hit hardest? In terms of hours cut and staff lost, that’s almost certainly true (at least based on the ALA briefing). In terms of branches closed (that complex target), probably—if only because urban libraries are more likely to be multibranch systems. But in terms of actual longterm library system shutdowns…well, see later in this article under “Apparent Closures in 2008-2009,” although my introductory paragraphs give it away: None of the few closed library systems/independent libraries are urban.
This long post on February 14, 2012 repeated portions of the earlier posts and added some new material—and it received ten comments (and eight more from me), including some from Bob Molyneux, one of the people I trust to state research findings clearly, honestly and without preconceived bias. That post and set of comments also lead directly to this article, even though there’s another post in between.
Since much of that post is quotes from earlier posts (that already appear here), I’ll leave portions of it out. I will quote a paragraph that highlights why I believe we hear so much about library (really mostly branch) closings and so little about reopenings (or new libraries):
LISNews, for example, seems to feature any story that suggests a public library might be in danger of closing, or that some source of funding has declined, and sometimes seems to have a “we’re all gonna die!” feel to it. It’s not the only one, to be sure…and I’ve noticed that threats or temporary closures seem to get a lot more coverage than reopenings, new library openings, or threats that were overcome. I know: “If it bleeds, it leads.” Journalism tends to emphasize the negative.
And my comment about Blake Carver’s report that most news about public library budgets is bad news:
A city increasing its funding for public libraries by 5% is not news; a city cutting its funding by 5% is news. Hell, look at the wave of stories and comments on the order of “OMG! California’s public libraries are all gonna’ close!” given the loss of somewhat less than 1% of public library funding…that is, what was left of state funding. The portion of those stories that followed the loss of $12.5 million with a note that California’s public library budgets total something like $1.3 billion? I don’t remember ever seeing such a story, actually…
This is the point at which I started looking at other IMLS information—the relatively brief reports IMLS does based on each year’s data.
I looked at the reports for 2009, 1999 (a 10-year gap) and, given the suggestion that 0.4% of public libraries have closed since 2004, FY2004.
I also looked at three figures: Library agencies (“libraries”), Outlets (stationary, including branches) and Bookmobiles.
The number of outlets can be dramatically different than the number of libraries, especially in states like California that tend toward large agencies (and has 1,122 outlets as of FY2009, but only 181 libraries).
Here are the numbers according to IMLS, with my own totals:
Do you see what I see? The 0.4% decline from 2004 to 2009…simply isn’t there. The overall trend of either libraries or branches (“outlets” is libraries and branches combined) shutting down…simply isn’t there.
Yes, there are fewer bookmobiles–6% fewer in 2009 than in 2004. But there are more libraries, more branches, and more total service points.
Actually, there is a number very close to 0.4% from 2004 to 2009: Namely, there are 0.58% more total service points in 2009 than in 2004. (Note that the “total” number adds Outlets and Bookmobiles, because Outlets already includes Libraries–except for those library agencies that are wholly bookmobiles.)
The 2009 IMLS report says that there are more libraries, right up front—but makes a point that the number of libraries hasn’t grown as fast as the number of people. That’s a much trickier discussion. Are people better served by lots and lots of very small locations or by fewer, larger, better-stocked, better-staffed locations? I don’t think there’s a simple answer. Nationwide, there appears to be roughly one library outlet for every 18,000 people–but that’s one of those averages that is as useful as saying that a river with wide banks and a deep central channel is an average of five feet deep.
One point that surprised me a little: The IMLS definition of a library requires paid staff and public funding. Given that a number of small libraries appear to be entirely operated by volunteers, I assume they have some minimal stipend that qualifies them.
I do know that there are lots of libraries around that don’t meet these definitions. A family member even operates one of them–and it’s quite appropriate that it wouldn’t show up in IMLS reports, as it has no public funding of any sort and doesn’t pretend to be an actual public library.
Here’s the rest of the post—another attempt to explain why I don’t care for the “libraries are shutting down all over!” message and think it’s dangerous:
My problem with negativity
I don’t believe it serves the library field to repeat the false notion that American public libraries are shutting down all over the place. (Note that qualifier “American”—I really can’t speak to the situation in the UK.)
For that matter, I don’t believe that always stressing the negative side of library budget issues is healthy.
For what it’s worth, the 2009 IMLS report does note that public library funding has grown in inflation-adjusted dollars since 1999…and the funding per capita has grown since 1999. No, it hasn’t grown as much as usage, but overall, libraries were better funded at the depth of the recession than they were ten years earlier.
I think that’s an important story. I think it’s important that Oakland, a city with enormous budget and other problems, made a point of not cutting library services in this year’s budget–but that story doesn’t show up in the library literature as much as any cut would.
I think that’s a shame. Building from strength works better than trying to stave off weakness.
That’s why this post’s title begins “Public library openings”—because, on the whole, more libraries and branches have opened than have closed.
When I started this essay, I’d planned to cite some (of the many) librarian posts and non-librarian articles about the wholesale closing of libraries. But, frankly, after encountering one lengthy essay by a librarian who proposes that lots of public libraries should shut down in order to (I guess) strengthen the library field as a whole, I find the whole thing too discouraging, so I’m skipping those. If you’re inclined to believe that nobody’s saying either that U.S. public libraries are shutting down—without ever citing numbers—or, worse, that we’d be better off if many or most of them did shut down (which may be even worse when it comes from academic librarians than when it comes from apparently-suicidal public librarians), such accounts aren’t hard to find. But let’s get back to this post.
Maybe because I finally did some of my own research, maybe because “Public library openings” is such a startling contrast with most public library coverage, I got quite a range of comments. I won’t note all of them, but here are some that seem relevant to this discussion. For example, this from Jeff Scott (excerpted):
I remember this topic coming up several years ago about library closings (OCLC report?) and the answer was the same. Very few libraries have closed their doors and many end up re-opening those branches [or] providing other services near the original locations shortly thereafter. There is always pressure from the public and government officials to expand library hours and branches.
There is always pressure from the public and government officials to expand library hours and branches. Not all government officials, to be sure, but Scott’s stating an important point: For all the budgetary pressures impinging on libraries and government, there’s pretty consistent countervailing pressure, especially when cuts are felt. (As Scott points out, he’s one of those who did attempt to clarify that the loss of state funding in California did not mean defunding California public libraries, as state funding wasn’t much to begin with.)
Brett Bonfield wanted to discuss more recent history—but the news stories he cited are primarily about funding issues and possible threats to libraries, not cases of permanently shutting down library systems. He did agree “that we’re in danger of turning gloomy scenarios into self-fulfilling prophecies.” He didn’t think IMLS data noted openings or closings; that’s no longer true for closings, but was true until 2008. He suggested checking with COSLA; I’ve tried through their website, with no luck.
Amanda had this to say (excerpted slightly):
I am sick and tired of hearing doomsayers. When I decided to go into library school people kept pitying me as if when I graduated libraries would be gone. When I attended my first class, I realized libraries aren’t dying. They’re changing quite a bit, and because of that they are going to thrive. Now it just sounds to me that the doomsayers are just afraid of the change so people report negative news to enforce their opinions and create an inevitable situation for themselves.
We really should be focusing on changing and innovating, not flag waving at every potential branch closing. Branches can be reopened, but they won’t if we just throw up our hands in defeat.
Charley Seavey offered another perspective:
Oh my goodness, real data instead of running in circles screaming that the sky is falling. Well done!
While not precisely analogous situations, this parallels in some ways the public library experience during the Great Depression. In the face of economic chaos far worse than that we presently face, American towns and cities persisted in opening new libraries. See the “The American Library and the Great Depression” article on my web page.
You might want to follow that link, to a version of a presentation Seavey gave at IFLA in 2002.
Bob Molyneaux, one of the greats of honest library research, complimented me on “An all too rare good use of data!” and offered some insights into the IMLS data and work he’s done based on it. Skipping much of that (which you might want to read via the link), he notes this about library data:
In fact, the library world has a number of good series but lacks a critical mass of people who are skilled in working with data. We don’t use what we have. I suspect it is easier to complain about how bad things are than work with what existing data series we have. From such work we could learn from them what we can about libraries and to improve both those libraries and the data we have on them.
There follows an exchange about data handling and fancy statistics that I enjoyed, but it’s a little orthogonal to this discussion. He also looked more closely at the IMLS figures for 2009 and came to this conclusion:
* It looks like no libraries closed.
* 9,216 (99%) — of the libraries had no change in status.
* 5 (0.05%) — absorbed by another entity
* 1 merged with another entity.
* 18 “add an existing [library] or Outlet not previously reported.”
Those aren’t quite the numbers I came up with; I found a few closures. But Molyneux also made a more significant point. Excerpting:
All that said, there is a larger point that we should not lose sight of. I believe you are correct that the number of library buildings has not fallen and, in fact, it looks like they have increased from what I see. However, there is an argument to be made that in some cases those buildings are being “hollowed out” to borrow a term. Use of public libraries appears to be going up from the best available evidence but there are many reports of staff layoffs and declining budgets. The data lag but public libraries in states I am familiar with are taking a major hit in funding.
As a result, I don’t believe all is happy in library land with the state of public libraries at least and the national-level data we have are not reflecting it. If all this is true, the buildings stand but some number have smaller staffs and aging collections so service likely would be declining. That is what I mean by “hollowed out.”
I don’t believe all is happy in libraryland either. My effort is to clarify one (relatively small) aspect of the overall picture. As I said in response:
I agree that the financial situation of too many public libraries is unfortunate. I think the apparently-false notion that libraries are shutting down all over the place hurts in two ways: First, it’s not true, and plays into the hands of “futurists” and libertarians who would *like* it to be true. Second, it obscures the real issues—which include the love most people have for public libraries and the lack of connection between that love (which sometimes prevents closing of branches that really should be closed) and adequate financial support for libraries to be the best they can be.
Separately, Will Kurt sent me email describing the work he’s doing with IMLS data at a newish blog, Library Data. He looks at the other big piece of the annual IMLS dataset—the outlet report, covering 17,000+ outlets—and comes up with 101 total closings (including 51 branch closings) for 2008, 99 total (including 52 branch) for 2009. His February 27, 2012 post offers these numbers in graph form.
His tumblr blog includes a number of other discussions and graphs. I think it’s worth looking at. He reviews actual library revenues and per capita revenues and expenditures and notes that revenue has been growing over time, even on a per capita basis using constant dollars—thus, adjusting for inflation. The growth has slowed and almost halted in recent years, but at least through 2009, it hadn’t dropped. That’s beyond the scope of my discussion, but I will quote one paragraph:
After looking at public library data for a week I think it’s fair to say that it is too early for a lot of doom and gloom regarding public libraries. At the same time, there are traditional library[y] services that are in rapid decline (reference), it is important the public libraries be open to change and grow to meet their users changing needs.
I commented that Kurt’s figures seemed high to me—and when I went directly to the IMLS library-level figures, I found a total of 47 “closures” over two years, roughly half of what he found. But that got me even more interested in looking at whether closures are permanent or whether they later turn into library openings, even over a relatively short term.
For this particular pass, I looked only at library closures—not new libraries, not mergers, not branch closures. IMLS now flags such closures (and other changes in structure) in the data element STATSTRU and drops closed libraries from its database after the year in which a non-temporary closure is announced.
Filtering the 2008 and 2009 datasets (that is, pupld08av2000.mdb and pupld09av2000.mdb, not the corresponding puout… datasets, which list outlets rather than just library agencies) on the codes for temporary and permanent closures, I copied appropriate columns for the 47 library agencies reported as temporarily or permanently closed. (Later, I looked at the 2009 data to see how many other libraries didn’t show any activity—that is, had zero reported hours or circulation—but weren’t officially tagged as closed. There were no such libraries within the 50 states and District of Columbia, although there were some in Puerto Rico and other territories: libraries that simply didn’t report figures.)
Then I looked at each of the libraries using word searches in Google and, later, Facebook. Of course every one of the 47 had Google results—typically more than a hundred, sometimes more than a thousand: There are dozens, maybe scores of bizarre autogenerated site systems that appear to create a web page for every library listed in IMLS and never get rid of old pages. I ignored these, looking only at pages that gave clear indication of actually being the libraries (or their communities) and having current activity.
Nineteen libraries are clearly open as of late February/early March 2012, based on web activity. Four appear to have been replaced by or merged with other libraries in the same community. One is a temporary closure. Three have contemporary web activity that seems strongly indicative of libraries that are open or reopening.
That leaves 20 libraries that reported circulation in 2007, are marked as closed in either 2008 or 2009 (14 in 2008, six in 2009) and don’t show clear web signs of having reopened. While it’s certainly possible that some of these have reopened (possibly on a basis that doesn’t qualify them for IMLS inclusion as public libraries)—especially since they’re nearly all very small libraries—I’ll assume for the moment that these are all libraries actually closed for at least two or three years.
Let’s look at each one briefly, based on what I could find online. These libraries aren’t spread evenly across 20 states. Nine are in South Dakota; three are in Alaska and two in Nebraska; the rest (one per state) are in Alabama, Kansas, Michigan, New Mexico and Utah. The bookmobile with the largest LSA is (or was) in Vermont. We’ll look at the libraries by state and then by community. I’m not certain any of these libraries are actually closed. Some could be open but no longer meet IMLS requirements for being listed as a public library (e.g., paid staff and public funding) and others may be open but have no web presence.
Also named Quyuk (in Iñupiaq). At last count, Koyuk has some 347 people and is growing slowly. In 2007, the library was open around 10 hours per week—but only circulated 351 items. It’s still listed in HAPLR 2009, but I can find no direct web presence of any sort. The town’s a little light on web presence also.
Also known as Asaacarsaq (according to Wikipedia) or Asa'carsarmiut (according to the State of Alaska). Latest population estimate 835, slowly growing. According to the 2007 IMLS data, the library was open a full 40 hours a week in 2007 and had a total circulation of 2,020 items. This town’s also light on web presence. I could find no library information under either name.
Ruby is a gold rush town, with a population peaking at 3,000. According to Wikipedia, the town was already in decline in 1918, hit further by a ship sinking, 1929 fire and 1931 flood, and deserted after World War II, with a couple of hundred Koyukon Athabascans moving in from nearby Kokrines “to take advantage of the abandoned homes.” The most recent population estimate is 173. In 2007, the library was reported as open six hours a week, circulating a total of 254 items. No current information found.
The largest community in this list, Dora’s LSA was listed as 2,413 in the 2007 IMLS database, with the library open 12 hours per week and total circulation of 2,010. While I could find no direct information, the adjacent Sumiton, Alabama (2,663 population) has a public library that was open 40 hours per week in 2007 and had a total circulation of 10,184.
Summerfield had 211 people in the 2000 census—but was down to 156 in the 2010 census. The official website calls Summerfield “The railroad town that survived the death of the railroad” and also calls it “the spunky little town that refuses to die” (emphases in original)—but that site hasn’t been updated since March 2003. In 2007, the library was open seven hours a week and had a total circulation of 532 items. No information on why the library closed, but the town’s clearly suffering population loss.
What’s that you say? You’re certain there’s an operating public library in Ann Arbor—in fact, quite a prominent one? You’re right. The Ann Arbor District Library serves more than 155,000 people in 2009 with an astonishing 9,172,180 circulation in 2009, up from 7,118,376 in 2007. But this is a different library agency, serving 1,808 people in 2007 with a total circulation of 1,545. The county’s library for the blind and physically disabled is administered by AADL, and given that this library’s 2009 newsletter says “is now administered,” I believe that this is not so much a closure as an adoption by a much larger library system.
This community had 489 people in the 2000 census, 573 in 2010. The library was open 8 hours a week in 2007 with 3,352 total circulation. I don’t find any information on the closing of the library or any replacement.
This library served a population of 75 people in 2007, open roughly 8 hours a week with a total circulation of 502. While the village’s website still mentions the library and shows it as open seven hours a week (over three days), that page hasn’t been updated since 2003. Given that the village’s children now attend school in nearby Orchard, it’s plausible to suspect that the Orchard Public Library may also serve Royal, but this counts as a still-closed library.
This one’s more mysterious than most. In 2007, IMLS shows it serving 7,904 people, open roughly 40 hours a week, with more than 8,000 circulation. The other online source I was using shows an LSA of 1,050 (which I’m using) and some 4,600 circulation—and in 2009, IMLS shows the library as permanently closing. The community itself apparently incorporated in 2010 with 561 people voting, which would seem astonishingly low for a place with more than 7,000 people. Community web sources do not mention a library.
Nine libraries in small South Dakota communities apparently closed in 2009. This is the first of them alphabetically and the largest, serving 944 people in 2007, when it was open just over 20 hours a week and circulated 6,578 items. The community went from 992 people in the 2000 census to 915 in the 2010 census. The only interesting information I have is that Google believes that the Harrisburg Community Library is actually in Arlington. I do note that the Harrisburg Community Library, which served 3,025 people in 2007, was open 19 hours a week and circulated 425 items, shows up in 2009 as serving 4,355 people, being open 32 hours a week and having 2,719 circulation.
Bonesteel had 297 people in the 2000 census, 275 in 2010. In 2007, the library showed an LSA of 268 people, was open roughly 20 hours per week and circulated 1,868 items. No further information available.
A very small community, Canova dropped from 140 people in the 2000 census to 105 in 2010. In 2007, the library appears as serving 125 people, open 20 hours a week—with a total circulation of 871 items. No further information is available.
Another very small community on the decline, going from 187 people in 2000 to 144 in 2010. The community’s website—which only works properly in Internet Explorer, with type overlaying type in Firefox—says that there still is a public library, open two hours per week; that page was updated in 2011. The IMLS 2007 database shows the library open 20 hours per week and circulating 1,143 items. (That database also shows total 2007 income as $668.) This library may still be open, depending your definitions of “open” and “public library.”
Chester has no web presence other than its school district; the stub Wikipedia article shows 261 people in the 2010 census, and IMLS shows 200 LSA in 2007—with the library open 20 hours per week and circulating 1,394 items. No further information available.
Wikipedia says Springfield had 1,092 people in both the 2000 and 2010 census—which, if true, is remarkable consistency (so remarkable as to be improbable). The 2007 IMLS row for Evelyn Lang shows it serving 1,516 people, open 30 hours per week and circulating 13,045 items—the highest circulation in this group. As with other communities in South Dakota with reported-closed libraries but visible websites, Springfield has a “we’re still around” motto—this time “The Best Kept Secret in South Dakota” (in a yellow text on neon-green background site that’s literally painful to behold). A page on that site, apparently updated in 2012, does show the library as open, with new hours: 45 minutes per day three days a week, two hours on one other day and three hours on Saturday, for a total of roughly seven hours per week. There’s also a Facebook page for the Springfield weekly newspaper showing library hours as recently as late 2011. I conclude that this library is operating in some manner.
Hecla had 314 people in 2000—and only 227 in 2010. IMLS data shows the library operating 20 hours per week in 2007 and circulating 2,070 items. No further information on the library or the community.
Java had 197 people in 2000 and 129 in 2010, which may be all that needs to be said. In 2007, the library was open 20 hours per week and circulated 1,247 items. No further information on the library or the community.
Corsica had 644 people in 2000 and 592 in 2010—a relatively slow rate of decline. The local website shows no indication of a library. In 2007, the library was reported as being open ten hours per week and circulating 4,397 items. No further information available.
In 2007, this bookmobile is listed as serving 947 people and being open 2.5 hours a week, circulating 2,700 items—while Duchesne County Library in Duchesne served 15,701 people, was open 80 hours a week and circulated 110,221 items. In 2009, the bookmobile does not appear as a separate entity, but the library now served 16,861 people, was open 90 hours per week and circulated 143,494 items. Meanwhile, there is a Daggett County Public Library housed in the Daggett County Museum—but the museum closes between Labor Day and Memorial Day (in other words, it’s only open about three months a year), and the library is shown as closed and looking for volunteers. The Daggett County website says the bookmobile service has been permanently closed.
In the 2008 IMLS database, the Big Read Wagon shows as serving 15,656 people, open 40 hours per week and circulating 5,903 items. (The Dailey Memorial Library in Derby appears serving 3,969 people, open 35 hours per week and circulating 18,103 items.) The only other evidence of this bookmobile I can find is a blog with one and only one post:
The New Big Read Wagon Bookmobile is on the road and running great!
We had to down size from the old bookmobile because of rising cost, fuel, repairs,insurance and so forth. I'll have a complete listing of our stops for September next time.
See ya later
That post is dated August 15, 2008; the bookmobile apparently did not survive into 2009. Ah, but it turns out there’s another blog, The Big Read Wagon, with another single post, this time from July 23, 2008:
The Big Read Wagon Bookmobile is a traveling library that has been serving most of Orleans and part of Essex counties in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom for the past six years. The Bookmobile provides print, audio, video and informational materials for its patrons of all ages free of charge.
But this blog also has a subtitle: “Big Read Wagon Bookmobile Dailey Memorial Library Derby Vermont.” Based on that subtitle, the bookmobile was effectively (if not administratively) operating as a service of the Dailey Memorial Library. Since that library’s 2009 record does not show evidence of a bookmobile, although there’s an early 2009 record of the Big Read Wagon receiving a $2,500 grant. Assuming (as I must) that this bookmobile no longer operates, it represents the largest loss in 2008-2009 in terms of people no longer served.
All of this seems to take things down to 17 libraries (including two bookmobiles) that are apparently truly closed for at least two years, along with some others that have either been replaced, merged, or continue to be open but possibly not meet IMLS and state definitions as public libraries. These were mostly very small libraries:
· One library potentially served fewer than 100 people.
· Four served from 105 to 173. Four more served from 217 to 347, for a total of nine—more than half the closed libraries—serving fewer than 350 people each.
· Five served 573 to 945 people: A total of 14 (all but three) serving fewer than 1,000 people.
· Two libraries fall into the second smallest category, one serving 1,050 and one 2,413 people.
· Finally, one bookmobile library served a legal service area of 15,656 people.
· Omitting that bookmobile, the closed libraries potentially served a total of 9,073 people as of the most recent enumeration, out of more than 308 million in the US (or, rather, out of 308.08 million total of all LSA figures in the 2009 IMLS report). That’s 0.003% of the population served by libraries (one out of every 34,000). 2007 circulation for the 17 libraries, including the bookmobile (6,066 circulation in 2007) was 44,798—out of a total 2,166,787,447 circulation for 2007. That’s 0.002%: less than 1 of every 49,000 circulations.
Some of these libraries may, in fact, be open but flying under the radar, with no current web presence: That’s not unusual for very small libraries. This is the maximum number of still-closed public library systems first reported closed in 2008 or 2009; the actual number may be slightly smaller.
Yes, public libraries close—sometimes because the communities they serve are emptying out, sometimes for other reasons. In all but the smallest communities, however, those closures on a permanent basis are vanishingly small. I don’t remember that any of these libraries made the national library news: These aren’t the sort of library closures that get big press. That may be unfortunate.
Here are a few supposed library closures mentioned in various sources, and what I found going online. They’re in order as they appear elsewhere in the story, followed by others I found in light web searching.
The first cited “closures” in this piece are for Charlotte, Philadelphia, Reno and Boston. None of those systems is currently closed. The threatened closures were generally branches, not complete libraries. Branch closings may be tragic—or they may be sensible adjustments in a system’s makeup as needs, funding and demographics change. (They may also be temporary: San Francisco’s been closing branches to remodel or rebuild them, and that’s a good thing. Now that San Jose’s budget picture is improving, it’s opening branches that had been built but never opened.) Let’s stipulate for the moment that all of the branch closures in these cases are bad for the people and the libraries; they’re still not library closures. Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, hit hard by the recession, closed four branches and reduced its award-winning services—but it did not close. Not even close. The Free Library of Philadelphia, with its 54 branches, did threaten complete shutdown—but that never happened, thanks to actions by the state. (Philadelphia has a recurring budgetary-crisis issue with state funding and hostile city politicians. I do note that there were far more “Philadelphia has closed / is closing / will close all / some / most of its branches” stories than “They’re open again” follow-ups.) The Washoe County Library System (Reno, Sparks and nearby areas) is operational and had been expanding over the past decade. Boston has had continuing attempts to close some number of its 27 branches; I see no evidence that the system as a whole was ever threatened.
What about Salinas, California, one of the most widely publicized public library system closures in early 2005? The three-branch system was indeed closed…for a while. According to the library’s own active website, “The residents of Salinas formed Rally Salinas, and passed Measure V to fund all Library operations for 10 years.” In 2007, the system served 149,539 people and circulated 248,813 items; in 2009, it served 152,597 people and circulated 454,489, suggesting a library on the mend. (The branches were open more than twice as many hours in 2009 as in 2007.) Of course, if you go on the web, you might conclude that this library was still closed—About.com, for example, never provided an update to an essay on Salinas’ closure, and that’s typical of most websites. “If it bleeds, it leads”—and if the bleeding was stopped, well, that’s not really news.
As with Salinas, the shutdown of Jackson County, Oregon systems in 2007 received national publicity—for example a March 4, 2007 San Francisco Chronicle story “Largest library closure in U.S. looms.” Jackson County’s library system was primarily funded with Federal money ($7 million worth); during 2006, the library circulated 1.47 million items. Local citizens consistently failed to pass measures to pay for the libraries. In 2009, however, Jackson County Library was open with 15 branches, albeit with reduced income ($5,413,633) and slightly reduced circulation (1.42 million items). Most funding now comes from Jackson County (77%).
An article in Wikipedia, “Public library advocacy,” appears to have been done as a class project. It includes a “failures” section with the introductory sentence “While many libraries benefit from advocacy many more suffer from a lack of advocacy or insufficient support.” Proof of that negative statement? The section lists six cases in all, two supposedly involving library system shutdowns: Siskiyou County Library, California, and Hood River County Libraries, Oregon. As of March 2012, the Siskiyou County Library is operating in 12 locations and the Hood River County Library District (replacing Hood River County Libraries as an administrative entity) is operating all three Hood River County libraries. The article does not mention that both of these libraries have reopened (or never closed: for Siskiyou County that’s not clear).
An article at care2 from September 2011 includes the sad note that the Troy, Michigan Public Library is closing down at the end of the year (based on a pseudonymous comment on a linked story). Oddly enough, there’s an active, current website for Troy Public Library in Michigan and active, current Facebook page and Twitter account, the former with more than 1,000 likes. The shutdown never happened, as far as I can tell, or at worst has been reversed—but the original article does not mention that awkward fact.
A Christian Science Monitor article dated June 27, 2011 informs us in no uncertain terms that the Garden City Public Library in Michigan “closed its doors on June 17.” That’s cited as part of a wave of library closures based on ALA information, quoted as saying that most states were reporting library closures over the past 12 months—a claim that’s been remarkably hard to follow up. Was that closure permanent or even long-lasting? Well, the Garden City Public Library website includes a calendar showing library events as early as September 2011 (and continuing through the present).
And so it goes. I could scour the first thousand or so of the remaining “2.6 million” results for “public library closures” (as a word search), most of them discussing holiday hours and other situations, but the picture begins to emerge. Yes, library systems do close, sometimes permanently, but it’s not common, especially in communities that aren’t in the process of fading away. What’s consistently true: The news of threatened or actual closure travels far faster and more broadly than the news of reopening or salvation. And we’re left with a continuing picture, made worse by those librarians who’d just as soon get rid of public libraries that don’t meet their own standards, that libraries are shutting down left and right. It’s simply not true.
This alarmist site, built by or in cooperation with Library Journal. which does not seem to have been updated since June 2010, has a “Link Roll” about saving libraries and maps for 2008, 2009 and 2010, labeled as “The Big (Awful) Picture.” To maximize the downside in this deliberate view with alarm, it flags not only permanent closures but staff furloughs, budget cuts, reduced hours, statewide budget cuts and construction delays. (Looking at portions of the site other than the “big picture,” there’s enough evidence of Cyrillic spam to suggest that the site’s been abandoned.)
Let’s look at the claimed cases where “entire system is closed.”
For 2008, looking at all of the hotspots yields a grand total of…zero closed systems.
For 2009, once you plow through the vibrating red dots for closed branches, the number of closed library agencies adds up to…zero. In other words, this alarmist site didn’t even locate any of the small libraries that did close in 2008 or 2009.
For 2010—well, after fifteen minutes, the “uMapper” application still hadn’t opened a map, so I’m unable to provide any information—if there’s information to provide.
The sum total of lost libraries (at the system level) as reported by this dire site: Zero. Branch closures? Sure—but those are always more complicated stories. (A huge wave of branch closures? Not as far as anybody can tell.)
The best (OK, the only) study I’ve located on public library closures is Why Public Libraries Close, by Christie M. Koontz, Dean K. Jue and Bradley Wade Bishop, dated June 30, 2008. It looks at closures from 1999 to 2003 and includes survey work as well as some fairly painstaking comparisons of various data files that were not prepared so as to facilitate year-to-year comparisons. (I think things have gotten better in this regard with IMLS’ public library datasets.) The study—which, as far as I can tell, is about library outlets rather than library agencies—identifies 99 permanent closures over four years. No list of the closed libraries appears in the PDF (it mentions an “Appendix X” but no such appendix appears), so it’s impossible for me to determine how many of these 99 have since reopened. The paper’s well worth reading, however, as it attempts to study why libraries (whether branches or agencies) close. For 2008 and 2009, I’m guessing that the primary reason is that the small rural communities became too nearly-abandoned or too poor to retain any library service that meets IMLS definitions—and, fortunately, that doesn’t seem to happen all that often.
Of course many public libraries should have better funding than they do. I don’t question that. (Are there overfunded public libraries? I won’t touch that one.)
Of course some public libraries have had to close branches in a manner that hurts residents, and more have had to cut hours, staff and services. I don’t think there’s any good picture of how public libraries have fared in a recessionary period compared to other public agencies, and I think that’s an important issue.
Why do I always qualify branch closings? Because they can be positive. I know of one nearby small city where the library itself was fairly well convinced that it would serve city residents better if it shut down two of its fairly large number of branches for the size of the city—but the city’s residents won’t let that happen. I do believe that there are some cities with too many branches, locations that can’t provide adequate services and that take resources away from nearby locations that could provide more programming, better resources, better staffing.
I believe perception is important in any field, and perception within the field even more so. If librarians believe public libraries are shutting down like crazy, they’re ill-equipped to work to build their own libraries from good to better. If politicians believe that other public libraries are shutting down all over the place, they’re less inclined to assure that their own libraries are strong.
I do plan to look at the 2010 IMLS figures and report what I find. Meanwhile, the key message is that it’s simply not true that public libraries in the United States are in their death throes and shutting down.
While I have no Ginzu knives to sell, I do have more on this issue—thanks to Will Kurt, who continued to investigate the situation after our initial discussion. Kurt compared IMLS data from year to year, explicitly looking for libraries that are in the list in Year X and not in Year X+1. The results of those comparisons appear in “Public Library Closings—1998-2008,” posted March 20, 2012 at Kurt’s Library Data blog.
There’s one graph in the relatively short post, and you should look at it directly—it has one line for “branches and central” (that is, the overall number of library outlets), one for “central only” (the libraries I’ve been looking at), and straight-line projections based on each of those two lines.
The results are fairly clear. Both straight lines head downward, from around 125 library and just over 200 outlet closings in 1998 to much smaller numbers in 2008. The actual lines aren’t nearly as smooth, with big drops in 1999 and 2000 and a spike in 2001 (for libraries) or 2002 (for branches). But the message is fairly clear. Quoting Kurt:
Confirming what Walt Crawford had mentioned in a post not long ago the state of public library closings is not actually as bleak as it seems. From the data we have it even appears as though public library closings are actually declining over time!
I’ve definitely heard a lot of talk about public library closings, but, anecdotally, whenever I would investigate further I would frequently find that at the last minute plans to close were cancelled. The results above lead me to believe people threaten to close public libraries much more frequently than they actually do.
At my request, Kurt sent me lists of the apparent closings. I plan to do the same crude research on those closings (libraries only, totaling 785 over the 11 years) to see how many of the libraries are still apparently closed and haven’t been replaced by branches or renamed libraries. That report will probably appear in the May 2012 issue (unless I convert it to a salable article, since Cites & Insights revenue continues to be $0). I haven’t started the research yet, but the first reduction—eliminating actual duplicates, cases where the same library appears, reappears, and disappears again from the IMLS lists, accounts for more than 10% of the supposed closures. So right off the bat, we’re down to 705 library closures over 11 years. We’ll see what that boils down to. (Here’s a wild-assed guess: Somewhere between 100 and 250, probably closer to 100. I will cheerfully admit to being wrong if that turns out to be the case.)
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