Libraries: Coping With ‘Digital Squeeze’
by Barbara Brynko
While there is light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, libraries are still feeling the pinch of the recent economic turmoil. These details and more about the library industry overall are part of a comprehensive new report titled “The Digital Squeeze: Libraries at the Crossroads” by research analyst Joseph McKendrick.
This “Library Resource Guide [LRG] Benchmark Study on 2012 Library Spending Plans” follows up on findings contained in a similar survey released in March 2011. Both studies were produced by Unisphere Research, the market research unit of Unisphere Media, a division of Information Today, Inc. The 730 participants in the latest study reflected all library types: 41% were public, 33% academic, 8% special, 7% community college, 5% government, and 6% other. Respondents ranged from directors and managers to department heads and librarians.
The Road Ahead
After reviewing the findings, McKendrick shared two surprisingly big shifts in the library market. “First, the demand for, and adoption of, ebooks has really taken off,” he says, even though ebooks still represent a small portion of library offerings, more budget dollars are going to print acquisitions, and libraries are finding some ebook publishers difficult to work with. “Second, … a lot of the pain in terms of cutbacks in the public library sector is being felt among the larger libraries, serving populations of 100,000 or greater,” he says. He expected to see small community libraries feeling the biggest pinch, which wasn’t the case, and suggests “that [smaller libraries] were already running so lean and cut to the bone that there isn’t a lot left to cut.”
The survey points to good and bad news on the horizon. The good news is that library budgets are showing increases overall, but the bad news is that these increases are falling short of letting libraries fulfill patron needs for advanced technology and information resources. The available funds at most libraries are being channeled to pay for the escalating overhead costs of staffing, operations, and equipment. In an effort to make ends meet, libraries are still being forced to trim expenses, limit staff hours and training, and even cut back on print subscriptions.
But libraries are turning their attention to the burgeoning demand for digital materials and ebooks to boost their electronic collections, while cutting back on print. Curiously enough, funding for print resources and materials still outpaces that for digital resources, with 40 cents for every $1 still being spent on print.
In fact, libraries are recognizing that the emphasis on providing more digital offerings is the wave of the future, and many librarians are going back to the drawing board to revamp their missions and services to see how they can meet the needs of this evolving market.
Doing more with less is one reason why half of the responding libraries now belong to at least one consortium. But smaller libraries with smaller budgets are experiencing more of a squeeze, as they try to meet the growing digital demands of their patrons for ebooks, streaming media, internet connectivity, and audio downloads. While larger libraries can find some relief in joining ebook consortiums, the membership fees can devour too much of the proverbial budget pie for smaller libraries.
Where the Funds Are
When it comes to acquiring funding, not all libraries are in the same boat. Community public libraries reported that they stand the best chance of increasing their funding compared to their academic or corporate/special counterparts, which was another surprising finding, according to McKendrick.
“Public libraries have a much broader and more varied constituencies than the other categories,” says McKendrick. “They need to not only provide reference and reading materials, but also have a role as Internet and technology hubs for their communities,”he says.
With budget coffers at a premium, libraries report that they are still forced to cut back, implementing cost-cutting initiatives that start with personnel (54%) and book acquisitions (52%), followed by acquisitions for serials and periodicals (about 40%). To accommodate bud-get shortfalls, libraries report that they are trimming their subscription list first and then freezing salaries and cutting staff travel and expense budgets for conferences and training sessions. Many facilities noted that they are cutting staff hours as well.
Where the Funds Are Going
After attending to overhead costs, any extra funds in library budgets are being channeled into beefing up technology-based offerings, a move that is reflected in the surge in ebook acquisitions (from 19% 1 year ago to 36%). There were also upswings in the purchase of online subscriptions and digital content collections and services.
Incoming funding, though limited, comes from mixed sources. Most libraries in the survey reported that they received funding from public sources, which has increased slightly since last year, while funds generated from gifts, grants, and endowments remained consistent. However, grant funding from government sources has declined.
Libraries reported that keeping pace with the rapid growth of digital demand isn’t easy. Nearly 75% of the respondents noted that the demand for digital offerings in their libraries has increased during the past year, and 25% of this group now reports that this demand has grown by more than 20%. One of the biggest drivers is the increasing demand for ebooks from patrons, from 41% 1 year ago to 62%. Demand for streaming media resources is also on the upswing, as well as access to the library for its wireless connectivity. One library commented that its patrons expect more special collections and archival materials, but the library doesn’t have the necessary technical support to meet the growing demand. Many libraries cited their outdated computers as impediments to digital initiatives and that they depended on patron donations for newer computer equipment to upgrade their services.
More than one-third of the respondents reported that they spent more money on information technology hardware, software, and related IT services over the past year, which is actually a higher percentage than what was predicted in the initial survey.
The Boost in Cloud Support and Tech Tools
Adopting IT resources from public cloud computing providers is on the rise, especially cloud services that provide hosting servers and storage and business applications for patron files or for library financial data. More libraries (34%) are moving to the cloud for operational support and content storage, up from 20% in the previous study.
Likewise, there has been a surge in adoption rates for intranet or extranet capabilities and the use of ILSs. The participating libraries reported that 26% of them now offer e-readers, nearly double the figure from last year. And 33% of respondents noted that they plan on buying e-readers in the coming year. One respondent commented that his library has seen ebook checkouts increasing and anticipates this activity as an area of “extreme growth.”
And as for social networking? Librarians reported that their use of Facebook and LinkedIn as a way to connect with patrons has leveled off, and the use of blogs and wikis is on the downswing. However, more librarians are now starting to collaborate with each other, sharing webpage or subject guides (30%), document-sharing web apps (18%), and photo- or video-sharing web apps (15%).
Digital and More
Doing more with less is one reason why half of the responding libraries now belong to at least one consortium. While libraries admit that they are busy trying to make the transition to digital, they are also interested in improving their customer service overall. They want to offer myriad services to patrons, which includes boosting access to online publications and providing education, tools, and services for easier access to information. But budget constraints remain an ongoing hindrance to attaining these goals for many libraries.
For community public libraries, ebooks are No. 1 on the list for patrons, while public libraries report that audiobooks and job search information are among their most high-volume requests. As a result, many public librarians and library directors view their respective institutions as hubs that can bridge the gap between unemployment and skills shortages for patrons. Technology training can help libraries provide the needed skills for patrons to deal with today’s digital world.
“Library managers—and their supporters—now recognize that libraries need to serve as more than simply repositories of books, periodicals and collections,” says Mc Kendrick. “A new role has emerged, that of community hub and access point for the full range of digital resources constituents need to succeed in our fast-changing economy.”
The results of this study, which was sponsored by ProQuest, were presented at the Computers in Libraries conference in March. The 36-page main summary of this report can be downloaded at no charge after registering at the LRG website (http://libraryresource.onlineinc.com/Downloads/ResearchReports). Individual segment reports covering specific trends are available for purchase at the LRG website.