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Finding the money stories in your local library

November 4, 2016

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Community libraries have plenty of money stories waiting in the stacks. (Image by "thumpchgo" via pixabay)
Community libraries have plenty of money stories waiting in the stacks. (Image by "thumpchgo" via pixabay)

Libraries are a vital part of many communities, even in the digital age. Between 2002 and 2012, public libraries’ total revenue increased 7.2 percent. With new funding streams such as partnerships with local businesses and reading program grants, as well as numerous ballot initiatives across the country, libraries are a surprising source of business stories. Here are four story ideas that may be hiding in the stacks.

The rise of e-books

Though the use of e-books is still comparatively low compared to print books, it has grown dramatically. According to Digital Inclusion Survey 2014-2015, 94 percent of U.S. public libraries now lend e-books and digital content. There is even a digital distribution library platform called OverDrive. Its users checked out 200 million digital items this year, which has increased by 24 percent for two consecutive years according to Library Transform, an initiative of the American Library Association.

However, the unlimited lending of e-books escalates the tension between publishers and libraries. For now, major U.S. publishers are exploring various ways to manage the situation. HarperCollins Publishers, for example, require libraries to renew an e-book license after 26 loans. Penguin Random House make all titles available under perpetual licensing without loan or period of use limit, as long as circulation is limited to one at a time.

More than a library

There’s no doubt that libraries have transformed in the last decade, tailoring their services to the needs of the people they serve. From extensive databases to 3-D printers, community libraries have invested in an ever-growing wealth of resources. According to the Digital Inclusion Survey 2014-2015, 98 percent of public libraries provide free Wi-Fi, 90 percent offer tech training and 73 percent help people apply for jobs.

Even health resources are part of the library system. The majority of state public libraries now provide online health resources, with 59 percent offering programs on finding health insurance and 23 percent hosting fitness classes, according to the Digital Inclusion Survey 2014-2015.

Renovation realities

One of the biggest challenges facing libraries today is aging infrastructure. According to the Public Libraries, Buildings, & Digital Inclusion Survey, the average public library in the U.S. opened in 1970; only 21.3 percent have been renovated in the last five years. A majority of librarians think of their buildings as poor or fair. Pew Research data shows more than half (57 percent) of patrons 16 or older suggest public libraries should “definitely” provide more comfortable spaces for reading and working and 50 percent ask for digital tools such as 3D printers and training services.

Continued cuts in funding

Though service demands for library are increasing, the funding available seems to be shrinking. From 2008 to 2013, public libraries underwent massive financial cuts. Nearly 57 percent of public libraries reported flat or decreased operating budgets in 2012. In the same year, 23 states reported state funding cuts in public libraries. Consequently, more than 40 percent of states reported three consecutive years of decreased support from 2010 to 2012 according to a Public Library Funding & Technology survey.

Despite the economy’s recovery, some funds have been reduced even further in recent years. Among the states that supply direct aid to public libraries, 17 percent reported decreased funding and 45 percent reported no change from 2014 according to the American Library Association.

Reporter’s Takeaway

• The unlimited lending of e-books has led to tension between publishing houses and public libraries. Look into the e-book policy in your local library and talk to the head librarian about their contracts with publishing houses.

• Public libraries have undergone dramatic transitions in the past decade. Investigate what special programs your local library provides and how much they cost. To compare your library’s community relationships with others across the country, visit Libraries Transform.

• Structural needs are big problems for public libraries. Ask the head librarian what renovations are needed, and see if there is the possibility of a ballot measure to meet their needs.

• Financial support for public libraries comes from local, state and federal funds. Investigate your local library’s financial situation and its annual budget. See whether the funding is up or down since the recession. You can find your local library operating expenditure on this fact sheet from the American Library Association.


  • Yu Zhang

    Yu is a passionate multimedia journalist who has reported on a wider variety of stories in the U.S. and China. Yu has investigated the state arrest of lawyers in China, left-behind children in rural areas, and talked to several founders of major vent...

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