Funding and budget outlook for public libraries
Like other burgeoning leaders across the land, aspiring professional librarians want to learn as much as possible about future prospects in their desired career path. With good cause, the main focal point is whether prospective employers receive adequate funding to survive and ideally thrive. Besides that, would-be professional librarians have begun to entertain serious doubts in response to a growing number of commentators who question the overall feasibility of traditional libraries in today's Digital Age.
Unlike yesteryear's libraries that were functionally equivalent to print media warehouses, contemporary library repositories are undergoing rapid evolution to electronic database maintenance and access centers. That revolutionary metamorphosis begs an obvious subsumed question of whether costly tuition for several years of specialized graduate educational preparation offers sufficient ROI to be worthwhile.
Library budgets are a mixed bag
Recent trends in library usage have had a hybridized impact. For instance, despite declining patronage of certain specific services, especially reference assistance, generalized increased usage of U.S. public libraries has been well documented over the last decade. As true of virtually all modern-day institutions and organizations, a vast majority of libraries have expanded service offerings to include public computers, free WI-FI and digital materials like e-books and websites. These additions have been cited as the main catalysts of an overall increase in library usage during recent times.
Per reported findings from a 2013 joint research venture by Pew Internet and American Life Project, slightly more than half (54 percent) of all Americans aged 16 or older had utilized some type of public library service during the immediately preceding 12 months. In addition, a whopping 94 percent of Americans surveyed expressed personal belief that a public library enhances local communities' overall quality of life.
Money still matters the most in library maintenance
Despite widespread positive impressions cited above, a concurrent public library funding decrease has rapidly ensued. Furthermore, school and institutional academic libraries have also experienced severe budgetary woes and sharply declined usage of conventional services like reference materials and interlibrary loan networks.
Although underlying root causes are numerous, complex, highly volatile and dynamic, a consensus exists that recent technological advances have rendered traditional library services practically obsolete. A prime case directly on point is electronic database research, with which would-be library patrons have become comfortable and competent since the Internet's advent. Still another obvious example is print media lending that has essentially been replaced by freely accessible online electronic databases. Despite such immutable globalized mutations, recent evolution has affected various library types in very different ways.
Ever rising cost of remote access to academic journals combined with rapidly growing information resources strongly infers that academic libraries can no longer afford to staunch loyalty to traditional access and lending service models. Consequently, academic libraries have begun experimenting with a novel service delivery model variously dubbed "scholars' commons" or "digital commons."
By either label, this format places heavy focuses on data quality, accessibility and literacy as opposed to compiling large print media collections. A major corollary trend has emerged with many college libraries completely remodeling their physical plants by adding laptop computers, cafes, USB and WI-FI outlets, mini classrooms and private study areas to draw more student patrons.
Besides all that, college and university librarians are reportedly seriously considering academic publishing services via an open access format. That widely proposed addition was apparently prompted by recently skyrocketed demand for publishing services that in turn suggests entirely new roles and responsibilities for academic libraries in the near future.
Establishing or re-establishing university presses may also provide a novel revenue-generating source for academic libraries. Results of a 2011 survey of American Research Libraries member institutions reportedly revealed that roughly half of all institutional respondents already offered or were in the developmental stages of publishing services.
The picture for public libraries is purportedly much clearer, thanks to sustained rises in patron visits and aggregate quantity of books borrowed during the last decade. Results of a survey by the Institute Museum and Library Services, the U.S. federal agency with delegated responsibility to monitor nationwide library usage, reportedly revealed a nearly 33 percent hike in physical visitations of U.S. public libraries between 2001 and 2010. Likewise, an American Library Association study reported finding a 61 percent jump in usage levels from 1994 to 2004.
A commonly cited chief causative factor in recently increasing public library patronage is the Great Recession that has left visitors with few options for low-cost entertainment, Internet access, job hunting help and research or educational resources. Per published findings from a 2011 Harris Poll Quorum, an overwhelming majority of patrons projected their future library usage levels will remain steady or rise. For the most part, respondents also expressed high levels of satisfaction with library services. As of 2014, an incredible 98 percent of libraries offered free WI-FI and formal or informal IT training. A huge majority of libraries also reportedly employ some type of social media such as Facebook to remain connected to patrons.
Contemporary U.S. libraries are also beginning to provide new recreational and entrepreneurial content creation opportunities. Additional, libraries all across America currently lend musical instruments, seeds tools and scientific equipment as well as IT tools such as video game consoles, e-readers and laptop PCs. This trend has been described by media as reflecting a struggle to remain relevant in the present Digital Age. However, public librarians counter that it merely represents a logical extension of long-standing service offerings.
Notwithstanding consistently rising usage levels, novel IT adaptations and high voter popularity, public libraries have withstood the worst of big cutbacks in both local and state government budgetary allocations. To justify large cutbacks in public library funding, public officials typically cite rapidly growing novel technological inventions and free availability of alternative informational resources. Nevertheless, voters have continued to support increased public library funding. In 2013, U.S. voters approved 41 initiatives for new public library funding, but rejected only 19.
Amid severe funding cuts for schools and libraries alike, school libraries are in extremely dire financial straits. The number of school librarians has dropped considerably as many have been laid off or reassigned to teaching duties. Starting salaries for new school librarians also fell by 2 percent in just one year from 2010 to 2011. Even worse news is that no end seems to be in sight for declining school library services, as schools continue seeking new ways and means of cost cutting and service consolidation. Finally, school libraries have been suggested as most likely to feel adverse impacts of funding cutbacks via budgetary sequestration, which entails selective funding cuts that target entire expense categories or specific types of programs and activities.
On a brighter note, many school libraries have begun to use budgetary crises as innovative catalysts. For instance, in 2011, one prominent private Catholic prep school relocated virtually all print books from its library to classrooms or donated its paper volumes to third-world countries. The school's principal reportedly stated that her institution's bold move was made possible by its firm commitment to ensuring that each student receives their own personal computer. Well-established collaborative efforts with local public libraries permitted continued student access to print books. The principal further disclosed that her school was not rejecting hard copy tomes outright, but merely wanted to avoid duplicative resources of public and other libraries.
Candid closing commentary on continued librarian career feasibility
For this writer, all the foregoing grim statistics, figures, emergent trends and doomsday predictions evoke vivid reminiscence of similar past scenarios wherein widespread hysteria resonated due to feared imminent extinction of certain fundamentally indispensable commodities and services.
The stark reality is that no amount of dismal prognoses or pessimistic outlooks will ever completely eradicate certain basic principles. Chief among these is an insatiable human thirst for knowledge for its own sake, or frantic quests for effective practical solutions to real-life problems of major universal import.
Such endeavors will never cease until the end of time as we now know it. A famous old cliché posits, "The more things change, the more they stay the same." Hence, some factors remain constant throughout all historical eras ushered in by ever-flowing sands of time. Stone tables with chiseled cuneiform surfaces and laboriously handwritten duplicate copies of papyrus books have long given way to high-speed mass reproduction methods. But the basic underlying concept of universal need and desire to access meaningful content has never before nor ever will disappear. Thus, a critical need for specially trained professionals to compile, organize and disseminate information will always exist. Ergo, the only true question at hand is not "if," but "how" and "what format".