Libraries: Coping with 'Digital Squeeze'

Article excerpt

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.

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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%). …