2020 Budget Survey Shows Growth, Unpredictable Patterns

Library budgets continued to expand in 2019, but varying areas of growth make patterns—and predictions—hard to discern.

Library budgets continued to expand in 2019, but varying areas of growth make patterns—and predictions—hard to discern.

Throughout 2019, library budgets continued their gradual climb back from the 2008 recession. LJ’s 2020 Budgets and Funding survey saw responses from 223 public libraries across the United States, 84 percent of which reported an increase in total operating budgets for a rise of 2.9 percent. This was more modest than last year’s 3.5 percent increase, but represents continued, if uneven, gains over the past ten years. The average total budget was $7,652,300, with midsized libraries reporting the largest gains—nearly five percent for those serving 100,000–249,000.

Discerning a pattern in growth rates is no easy task. While budgets have risen, increases have been staggered. Total operating budgets rose a modest 2.8 percent from 2016 to 2017, after growing 3.4 percent the previous year.

The budgets that saw the least growth were those for materials, which rose by a modest average of 2.2 percent—.2 percent less than the previous year. Only 57 percent of libraries reported growth in materials budgets, and those in the 10,000–24,000 and the 500,000–999,999 service range contracted—the only decrease in any budget area.

Personnel budgets, however, gained a healthy 4.3 percent, versus last year’s 3.8 percent increase, and 88 percent of responding libraries reported more money set aside for salaries. Municipalities with newly increased minimum wage rates could also be reallocating personnel money from elsewhere. This is true of Matteson Area Public Library, IL, which reported a six percent increase in its operating budget but a 20 percent decline in materials funding. “While we were told legally we weren’t required to follow the law as it was written for the private sector, if we didn’t keep up with the businesses in the area we wouldn’t be able to attract the talent levels we wanted,” says director Kathy Berggren.

Per capita operating funding for 2019 averaged $57.22, a considerable increase over 2018—with the caveat that this year’s responses came from a larger proportion of independently (and better) funded libraries. Suburban libraries were the winners, at 12 percent higher than average, and those with dedicated independent taxes came in at 18 percent higher than the average—and 42 percent higher than libraries that rely on local government appropriations.



Some 43 percent of respondents said that circulation had increased over the previous year, for an average of 1.9 percent. The largest libraries saw the greatest rise in circ; only midsized libraries, serving 25,000–49,999, reported a decrease.

Average per capita circulation in the last year was 8.75 items, including print and digital, for a net increase of 1.9 percent. But even with this year’s positive uptick, circulation in the last decade is still trending downward.

About 20 percent of public library circulation in 2019 came from downloadable or electronic items, including ebooks, audio, streaming media, and others. Spending on materials was proportionate to circ, with one fifth of outlay going toward digital materials. Half the libraries indicated that the budget percentage allotted for digital materials increased in the past year, by an average of 7.4 percent.

However, the correlation between spending and circulation is not always so direct, and other factors may come into play. Nashville Public Library, for instance, reported a 44 percent reduction in its materials budget last year. Nashville city services operate under the umbrella of the Metropolitan Government of Nashville–Davidson County, and the library’s budget is tied to a special revenue fund. “If times are lean, the Metropolitan Government may not fund as much as was allocated in previous funding years due to funding availability,” explains Assistant Director Susan L. Drye.

In general, public libraries devote an average of 11.1 percent of their total budget to materials; per capita materials funding averaged $6. Independent taxing districts had nearly one-quarter more than the average to spend on materials, whereas libraries beholden to government appropriations spend nearly 21 percent less.



A number of respondents cited the increasingly sophisticated needs and desires of customers, who have come to expect cutting-edge technology and resources as well as Wi-Fi throughout the building and even outside its walls.

“Budget increases are necessary to maintain the level of service our patrons have come to expect, due to a growing and changing city with more specialized needs and interests, combined with an increased patron preference for costlier materials and services,” says Laura Gentry, Digital Communications Specialist at the Seattle Public Library. Libraries spent an average of $614,000 on technology last year, with nearly half reporting an increase over the previous year (and only 14 percent stating that they spent less). Not all tech spending is patron-facing. Several libraries reported needing to replace their automated materials handling systems (a $300,000 outlay) or upgrade their integrated library system (ILS), RFID capabilities, or building security.

Along with technology demands, the library’s growing role as civic connector brings increasing space needs. Capital outlays encompass not only wear and tear or repairs, but public areas that serve a range of community needs, including meeting rooms that may remain accessible to the public outside of library hours. Those open hours remain relatively flat from last year at 51.7 hours per week.

The demand for creative and engaging programming is also growing. Forty-four percent of libraries reported an increase in programming budgets, for an average of $78,900. Averages ranged from $3,400 at the smallest libraries to $657,700 at the largest.

Outreach is increasingly important. About half of libraries spent money on outreach in the last year, averaging $67,200—with one quarter noting that this was an increase over last year’s numbers. The larger the library, the more likely it was to spend on outreach, including bookmobiles, Head Start programs, and book lockers or pop-ups.

One area in which many libraries have voluntarily decreased revenue is fines and fees. Going fine-free has been picking up steam: Fines present a barrier for those who can least afford them, often driving patrons away, and generate little income. Nearly a quarter of libraries who responded to the survey say they are currently fine-free, with another 25 percent considering making the change.

The libraries most likely to be currently fine-free are the smallest and the largest. Libraries in the West have embraced going fine-free at a higher rate than in other regions.



Technology (hardware, software, internet, ILS, etc.)




Outreach (bookmobiles, pop up libraries, book lockers, etc.)





Increase 84 57 88
Decrease 14 29 10
No Change 2 14 2
Overall % change 2.9 2.2 4.3



Staffing has still not rebounded from 2010’s average of 82 FTE; over the past ten years, total FTE staffing is down 20 people. This year, a quarter of responding libraries reported an increase in staff size from 2018 to 2019. Only ten percent reported a decrease, with the rest showing no change.

The average amount spent on salaries for full time employees, including FICA and benefits, was $71,232. About 44 percent of library staff is employed full-time; that number increases according to the size of the library. MLIS credentialed librarians make up just 17 percent of total library staff, with that figure rising to 26 percent at the largest libraries—although those biggest systems also reported the smallest gains in personnel budgets, at 2.3 percent. In contrast, smaller libraries, with service areas of 10,000–24,999, saw personnel budgets grow by a healthy 5.9 percent.

Despite such gains, the rising cost of employee benefits continues to pose a challenge. Health care benefits are predicted to rise by five percent in 2020, according to a survey from the National Business Group on Health.



More than half—55 percent—of this year’s responding libraries are subject to local budget appropriation, down from two-thirds last year. Another 35 percent are funded through an independent taxing district, up from 27 percent. Independent districts averaged operating budgets of $10.9 million in 2019, while those subject to local annual budget appropriation averaged budgets of 6.3 million: 42 percent less.

Despite ongoing challenges, however, 74 percent of government-funded libraries received funding increases in 2019. Overall, local funding increased by 5.1 percent, twice last year’s reported growth. It was a good year for state funding as well, which increased by a net 2.5 percent.

Library donations rose by 2.6 percent, and grants increased by 18.7 percent. The South experienced decreasing grants, but all other regions saw double-digit growth—including the Northeast’s 53 percent.



Looking ahead, library budget offices predict a 3.7 increase in total operating budgets for the coming year, with the smallest libraries predicting the highest increases. Northeastern libraries had the rosiest regional outlook—although West/Mountain area libraries anticipated the biggest boosts—and small town libraries were similarly more optimistic than their national counterparts. Libraries funded by local government and independent tax districts both had a similar range of predictions. This year’s growth exceeded last year’s modest prediction of a 2.1 percent rise in budgets.

If the uneven trends of the past decade’s budget growth offer any through line, it’s that the factors influencing library funding—including political shifts, uncertain pricing models, rising benefit costs, and the unending need to keep collections, tech and infrastructure safe and current—are so wide-ranging as to frustrate accurate prediction. But for now, budget gains are still on the upswing. 

Author Image
Lisa Peet


Lisa Peet is News Editor for Library Journal.

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