Uncertain Times: Budgets and Funding 2022

With an influx of federal dollars and increase in consumer confidence in mid-2021, library budgets began to rebound from the pandemic’s first year—but are those gains sustainable?

After libraries weathered hardships during the first year of the COVID pandemic in 2020—including sudden industry-wide building shutdowns; the consequent shift to remote and digital offerings; funding cuts at state, county, and municipal levels; and the call to meet a new array of community needs—2021 public library budgets reflected the general relief offered by a nationwide vaccination and booster program and several robust federal assistance programs. But for all the help, most top-down funding is not ongoing, and as the year ended, the spread of the Omicron variant triggered new levels of uncertainty about if and when life will return to normal.

LJ’s 2022 Budgets and Funding survey, sponsored by Penguin Random House, Baker & Taylor, and The Library Corporation (TLC), received responses from 214 public libraries across the United States—the fewest in the survey’s history. Despite difficult times, it showed unexpectedly healthy increases across the board. From 2020 to 2021, total operating budgets rose by 3 percent, materials budgets were up 1.3 percent, and personnel budgets increased by 4 percent. (Download the full data report here.)

The average total operating budget in 2021 was $7,820,200, up from $7,594,500 the previous year. Seventy percent of responding libraries stated that their operating budgets increased; only a quarter reported decreases. But for those that have seen substantial cuts, or need to fund major capital needs, digging out will involve a concerted effort that goes beyond federal stabilization funding.

 

FEDERAL AID AT WORK

The previous year’s survey also saw upticks despite pandemic disruptions, with 2020 total operating budgets up by 2.9 percent, materials budgets by 0.5 percent, and personnel budgets by 3.1 percent. That reflected budgets mostly set before pandemic disruptions. At the time, survey respondents—and LJ—anticipated that 2021 would bring belt-tightening.

Fortunately, federal stimulus programs achieved their aims. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, extended through the end of 2020, and the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) provided a cushion not only directly to libraries but also to other cultural institutions, individuals, and businesses—all of which reinforced libraries. Other aid to local and state governments and public schools reduced the need to compete for scarce resources. And while the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act was signed into law by President Joe Biden shortly before LJ’s survey closed in December 2021, its $65 billion earmarked to expand broadband in rural and low-income communities offers the promise of expanded services for libraries.

“Some local and state government cuts that were being threatened or even instituted in ’21 are smoothing out in ’22 because the federal stabilization funds through ARPA have made it possible,” says EveryLibrary Executive Director John Chrastka. “What we’re seeing is the impact of federal funding into the ecosystem, either directly or indirectly.”

Direct aid to libraries was particularly critical; 79 percent of those responding received federal or state COVID money in the last year. The smallest libraries were the least likely to receive this aid, while those in urban areas and the South reaped the most benefits. The money was most commonly spent on COVID-related expenses, such as sanitation supplies, plexiglass, cleaning services, air filtration systems, and personal protective equipment. It also went toward Wi-Fi hotspots, Chromebooks or laptops, additional digital materials, outreach vehicles, and—as libraries pushed to serve patrons physically and virtually and created new positions to fill customer needs—payroll.

Despite receiving less federal funding as a whole, the smallest libraries—serving populations of 10,000 or fewer—reported the biggest increases in operating and materials budgets, at 4.3 percent and 5.7 percent, respectively. Larger systems, serving the 100,000–499,000 range, saw a 4.7 percent jump in personnel budgets.

 

BUDGET CHANGES FROM 2020 TO 2021

  % TOTAL
OPERATING
BUDGETS
%
MATERIALS
BUDGETS
%
PERSONNEL
BUDGETS
Increase 70 47 70
Decrease 25 34 21
No Change 5 19 9
Net change 3 1.3 4

SOURCE: LJ BUDGETS & FUNDING SURVEY 2022

FUNDING SOURCES

Over half of this year’s sample libraries (57 percent) were funded by a local budget appropriation, with a third (34 percent) funded through an independent library district.

As in previous years, there was a marked difference between the two types of funding sources. Independent districts averaged operating budgets of $9.27 million—slightly down from last year’s $9.6 million—while libraries paid for by local annual budget appropriation averaged 31 percent less, at $6.35 million, just up from 2020’s $6.2 million. Per capita funding in independent taxing districts ($78.49) also exceeded that of libraries dependent on government appropriations ($53.62).

As consumer spending, homebuying, and employment rates rose throughout much of 2021, so did tax receipts, which, along with federal subsidies, restored some stability to city, town, and county coffers. “In the ecosystem of those different types of taxpayer support for institutions, there’s no reason that things shouldn’t have rebounded,” says Chrastka. It is notable, however, that independent library districts were not eligible for ARPA funding, although they have benefited indirectly from infusions of those dollars elsewhere.

More than half of government-funded libraries received additional local dollars this year than in 2020—55 percent, up from 38 percent the previous year—although the average net increase of 1.2 percent was not extensive, particularly in light of last year’s record inflation hike of 6.8 percent. Local funding increased for 65 percent of urban libraries in 2021, with an overall percentage change of 3.4 percent. However, funding for suburban and small-town libraries dipped marginally, by 0.2 percent for each. Despite 42 percent of libraries in the West/Mountain region reporting no change, the overall net change in the region was up 4.7 percent, possibly due to large gains for individual systems.

State funding fell slightly, down 0.9 percent. Over a quarter of libraries in the South reported a decrease in state funding, adding up to a significant 14.3 percent drop. Urban libraries did better than average, however, reporting a 5.7 percent increase, as did libraries in the Midwest, with 6.6 percent more state money this year.

Perhaps as an overall response from individuals, funders, and philanthropic organizations who understood the value of libraries in difficult times, donations were up 9.3 percent, although several libraries reported that a lack of in-person events meant a decrease in donations. Grant money increased across all sectors by an impressive 30.5 percent. Urban libraries were the most successful at earning donation and grant money, with suburban libraries earning the least.

(For a more detailed look at this year’s ballot results, see “We Must Try To Win” in LJ's February issue, pp. 32–34.)

 

FUNDING CHANGES FROM 2020 TO 2021

  % CHANGE
IN LOCAL
FUNDING*
% CHANGE
IN STATE
FUNDING
% CHANGE
IN GRANT
FUNDING
%
CHANGE IN
DONATIONS
Increase 55 26 42 23
Decrease 13 13 13 27
No Change 32 44 33 45
N/A   17 12 5
Net Change 1.2 -0.9 30.5 9.3

*Libraries subject to local budget appropriations

SOURCE: LJ BUDGETS & FUNDING SURVEY 2022

SPENDING SHIFTS

Nearly half of responding libraries (47 percent) spent more on technology in the last fiscal year, averaging $360,400. This adds up to 22 percent more than what was reported last year.

An estimated 27 percent of materials spending went to digital content, only one percentage point up from last year. But this was still an increase for more than half of respondents, who reported shifting an estimated 8 percent of money previously spent on physical materials to digital resources to accommodate the pandemic-era need for remote access. Suburban and urban libraries allocated the largest percent of their spending—more than 30 percent—to digital materials.

Technology for staff to work and program remotely, such as webcams, headsets, and Zoom licenses, was also a common line item. “We prioritized technology-based initiatives and professional development for staff system-wide,” says Arkansas River Valley Regional Library System Director Misty Hawkins. “Moving forward, those items will remain high on the priority list.”

Many technology-forward changes will likely be permanent, especially in smaller libraries that stepped up their tech game during the pandemic. “We hope to keep our hotspot lending program current. We are in the process of adding five more this month, which will bring our total up to 10,” says Sandra Kay Tharp-Thee, director of Tryon Public Library, OK. Thanks to the Oklahoma Department of Libraries and the CARES Act, the library was able to add four desktop computers to its existing one, including a private computer for telehealth and job interviews.

Only a quarter spent more this year on outreach, with less than half (44 percent) spending money on it at all, for an average of $68,500. The larger the library, the more likely it was to spend on outreach—only 17 percent of the smallest libraries did, compared to 75 percent of the largest. These numbers look more like 2019’s, as last year’s dollar spike was likely related to pandemic building closures.

Libraries spent even less on programming—an average of $64,300, although this was up from last year’s $58,300. This was a decrease for 41 percent of respondents, with the biggest drops in spending at the largest libraries.

As noted above, health and safety accommodations for both staff and visitors featured in nearly every budget. These included not only health and safety items but supplies for curbside pickup and to-go kits, and larger investments such as holds lockers, touchless water bottle fillers, and self-checkout hardware.

 

MOVING MATERIALS

Libraries reported devoting an average of 11.9 percent of their total budget to materials, slightly higher than last year’s 11.2 percent. Suburban libraries and those in the West and Midwest spent the most per person on materials—nearly twice as much in the Midwest as in the South.

LJ surveys have shown a steady downward trend in per capita circulation for the past 10 years, other than an outlying peak in 2017. However, this year per capita materials funding averaged $7.26, the most recorded since LJ began calculating it—a solid 13.3 percent jump from the previous year (overall per capita funding for 2021 averaged $61.77). This could be attributed to a larger number of responding libraries being funded by independent taxing districts, which has historically given them a notable edge, but it is still a sign of overall health.

The average circulation for 2020, or the last complete year recorded, was 838,800—down 23.5 percent from what was recorded the previous year, although not as severe as the predicted 29.6 percent decrease. Per capita circ, including print and digital items, was 8.01 items. As usual, per capita numbers were highest in Midwestern and suburban libraries.

Many libraries eliminated late fines and fees in 2021. The choice not to impose fines during pandemic shutdowns, both to accommodate patrons unable to return materials on time and to maximize access at a time when it was needed most, set a precedent that many systems across the country chose to make permanent. It remains to be seen what, if any, significant financial losses will result. New York City’s three systems (Brooklyn Public Library, New York Public Library, and Queens Public Library) announced in October that they would no longer charge late fines, planning to leverage resources that include grants specifically for fine amnesty, future fundraising efforts, and hopes that the incoming mayor’s budget allocations help make up any shortfalls.

 

HIRING, REHIRING, STAYING OPEN

A quarter of responding libraries reported an increase in staffing over the past year, for an average of 62.9 full-time equivalent (FTE) employees—up six FTEs on average since last year. Seventy percent noted an increase in personnel budgets, but spending on FTE staff, including FICA and benefits, has remained flat.

Furloughed employees were not included in the calculation. A quarter of responding libraries had furloughed or laid off staff during the pandemic; of those, 59 percent have brought back all staff members and 22 percent have restored some; 19 percent have not rehired at all.

At the end of 2021, 21 states raised their minimum wages—good news for workers, but a potential problem for systems already suffering from tight budgets. “The mandatory minimum wage is already hurting us,” says Jan Ambrose, director of the Marseilles Public Library, IL. “COVID slowed us down, but the minimum wage is going to cause fewer hours and services.”

The current average of weekly open hours per location is 47.7. This is up 38 percent from the 34.6 hours reported last year, with 43 percent of libraries increasing hours in 2021, but not yet at pre-pandemic levels.

Libraries in the midsize range, serving populations of 50,000–99,999, reported the most open hours per location but were also most inclined to have cut hours in the past year. The biggest increases were to be found in the largest libraries—and, conversely, the smallest were least likely to have added open hours. But size was not necessarily an indicator of stability; Alabama’s Birmingham Public Library, one of the largest systems in the Southeast, has seen its budget reduced by nearly $4 million in the past decade and has publicly stated that it will need more funding to keep all of its branches open.

 

CIRCULATION, HOURS, AND STAFFING CHANGES FROM 2020 TO 2021

  % CHANGE
IN
CIRCULATION  
% CHANGE
IN WEEKLY
OPEN HOURS   
%
CHANGE IN
FTE STAFFING
Increase 70 43 25
Decrease 20 14 15
No Change 10 43 60
Net change 10.6 6.7 0.9

SOURCE: LJ BUDGETS & FUNDING SURVEY 2022

WHAT NEXT?

Although many had previously predicted decreases for 2021, this year—with an unexpectedly strong showing across the board—responding libraries feel that the coming year will bring a 2.2 percent rise in operating budgets.

The smallest libraries predict the least overall increase, as do those in the Northeast and rural areas. Libraries in the midsize range anticipate a 3.7 percent budget boost, and urban systems are similarly optimistic. Independent district libraries also feel confident that their numbers will go up in 2022, anticipating a 3 percent increase, as opposed to those funded by local appropriations, which foresee 1.6 percent gains.

Libraries estimate that the largest portion of their technology spending—35 percent—will be allocated to enterprise software, such as their integrated library system (ILS). Individual hardware purchases, such as computers, 3-D printers, and scanners, are projected to account for nearly a quarter of tech spending in 2022.

Despite a decade-long downward trend in circulation, 70 percent of libraries predict that circ numbers will go up almost 11 percent, likely reflecting the steady reopening progress libraries made before the Omicron variant’s surge.

It remains to be seen how Omicron will affect next year’s budgets as a whole. While a growing number of libraries are temporarily closing understaffed branches where employees are affected by COVID, and a handful of libraries temporarily closed whole systems or reduced hours and capacities, at press time the country has not yet seen widespread closures of the kind experienced in 2020. The fate of Biden’s Build Back Better Act—which at press time was stalled in the Senate—will also potentially have an impact.

Despite many libraries’ rebound from the height of pandemic-driven challenges, the future feels more uncertain than ever. And while gains from onetime federal infusions have been invaluable, libraries are cautious about committing to projects or positions with recurring costs attached. “What happens when there’s not an appropriate amount of funding coming in to stimulate the economy?” Chrastka wonders. Next year may offer some answers to that question.

Author Image
Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is Senior News Editor for Library Journal.

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