The Impact of the Recession on Public Library Use in Colorado

Coloradans are continuing to experience tough economic times as they recover from the latest recession. In the absence of consumer confidence and aggressive investment in the private sector, spending and associated tax revenues are also down. This, in turn, is putting extraordinary pressure on the public sector at state and local levels. City councils, county commissions, special district boards, and the General Assembly are tightening their fiscal belts to historically low levels.

In this context, it is not surprising that Colorado public libraries are suffering financially. Between 2007 and 2009, 25 of the state‟s 114 public libraries (22%) experienced reductions in total revenue and another 19 (17%) saw no or negligible (i.e., less than 5%) revenue increases. That means that 44 public libraries in Colorado—39 percent, or two out of five—are in some degree of financial distress. If the additional pressure of population growth is taken into account, the situation is even worse. Thirty-two libraries (28%) saw their per capita local revenues drop between 2007 and 2009, and another 17 (15%) experienced little or no increase in funding—meaning that a total of 49 libraries (43%) are under fiscal pressures.

Fortunately, a few of the state‟s public libraries had previously-funded building campaigns come to fruition, leading to the opening of several new state-of-the-art central libraries and library branches. Other libraries set new service priorities for their own limited resources, and still others renewed efforts to let their users know just how much they can do to help.
As the recession reached Colorado and deepened, a popular library bumper sticker slogan was proven to be true:

Libraries will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no libraries.

As Coloradans lost their jobs and homes, or grew fearful of losing them, many found that an old friend could serve them well: the public library. The library is a place where those who are casualties of a bad economy can turn for much-needed information, community, and help. This report shares the statistical trends for public library use before and since the onset of the latest recession. It also includes the voices of librarians from around the state, offering their observations and stories of how public libraries are helping in these difficult times.

Two conclusions are clear: Public libraries are more needed than ever, and they are stepping up as part of the social safety net that helps people protect the financial security of their families and build new futures when they must. For some, a new future means finding a job, sometimes in a new community; for others it means going back to school to re-tool for a new career; and for still others it means becoming entrepreneurial and creating their own jobs and jobs for others. People in all of these circumstances are finding the help they need at public libraries.

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LRS is part of the Colorado State Library, a unit of the Colorado Department of Education. We design and conduct library research for library and education professionals, public officials, and the media to inform practices and assessment needs. We partner with the Library and Information Science program at University of Denver's Morgridge College of Education to provide research fellowships to current MLIS students.

This project is made possible by a grant from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).

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