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“How Low Can Book Budgets Go?”

September 9, 2013

The cover of the current issue of “American Libraries,” caught my eye for several reasons. It’s the “library design showcase” issue, so the cover photo is eye-catching.

Below the gleaming silver and gold surfaces of a new D.C. library were a couple of lines flagging other content: “Prepping for Plus-Size Patrons,” and “How Low Can Book Budgets Go?”

Inside, the headline said, “Is your library plus-size friendly?” If this were the April 1st issue, I would have laughed. But the article was straight-up, discussing issues with seating, rest rooms, weight-limits on stepstools.

For example: “For obese patrons (and others) who have trouble walking, it would be helpful to post key phone numbers around the building so they can use their cellphones to request assistance.”

I thought ‘What?!’ but then immediately ‘Not a bad idea,’ at least for large libraries. Of course, it encourages cellphone use, which many libraries have sought to discourage. When new wood chairs arrived here, we wondered if the obesity epidemic wasn’t already reflected in the design. The contrast to the size of our century-old Stickley chairs was impressive.

The cover photo showing a new library space perhaps unintentionally highlighted the other headline, “How low can book budgets go?” It showed a very spacious browsing section with lots of empty shelving, much of it for non-print media. The one wall of books was all face-out display, which “sells” books but limits the number.

The article discusses the declining “book” budgets of libraries overall. “Book” budgets are now “materials” budgets, and the decline in print book purchases is further masked by the rise in purchasing of other materials—video as well as audiobooks and ebooks.

On the one hand, books are books, so perhaps is doesn’t matter if one buys print books, audiobooks, or ebooks. However, the number of distinct titles purchased by libraries has declined with demand for multiple formats of popular titles. One library might have a popular title in regular print, large print, audiobook on CD, MP3 audiobook on CD, downloadable audiobook, and now, ebook (EPUB and Kindle formats). Thus, declining materials budgets are also used more shallowly.

The article reports that public libraries added 41.3 million books in 1989 and 27.9 million in 2009, a 32% decline. In that time, book publishing has increased, as well as book purchasing (Americans bought more than 10 books per capita in 2009 vs. 4.4 books per capita in 1975).

Public library share of the total book market dropped from 4.31% in 1989 to 1.31% in 2009. It’s probably one of several reasons big publishers have been slow to bother about ebook access in libraries.

But here’s some good news. Here at the Southern Chaffee County Regional Library District, which is the Salida Regional Library, that same time period looks like this: in 1989, we spent $21,000 on library materials and had a per capita circulation of 9.09, and in 2009 we spent $133,000 on library materials with per capita circulation of 18.64.

In 2011, it was 22.53 per capita, and in 2012, 24.45, although that includes some Marmot activity.

There are a lot of issues and numbers buried in those statistics, but the point is that you use your library, and the library is able to respond—even more readily now that we are part of the Marmot and Prospector library networks.

We’re still open 70 hours/7 days per week, and all this service won’t be impacted by the 1.4% reduction in the district’s tax income next year.

This service includes the long-time children’s story hour, which has begun for the school year: Wednesdays at 10:00 a.m. Stop by the children’s room or see our website for themes.

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