We’re so glad you asked. In short: the library is maintaining many of its core service levels, while usage has been increasing in key metrics like visits, circulation, and programming. However, meeting community demand and expanding services for underserved neighborhoods and user groups remains firmly out of reach due to massive, long-term budget reductions.
First, let’s talk about oversight for library services
The Boulder Public Library is managed and supervised by City staff and overseen by the Boulder Library Commission, community residents who are appointed by City Council. The Commission consists of 5 members (there is currently one vacancy).
The Library Commission meets each month to discuss how the library’s doing – it looks at key metrics, and regular items such as security issues, programming, and budgetary adjustments. On May 4, the Commission reviewed a report showing progress on the library’s 2018 Master Plan, and this is what they found.
The pandemic impacted…everything
When the pandemic hit in 2020, library services were cut drastically as a result of a dip in sales tax revenues that occurred when the COVID lockdowns began. More than 60 of the library’s staff members were laid off, branches closed, and programs canceled.
Critical social equity programs like Reading Buddies and BoulderReads were cut because their staff positions were terminated. The collection budget, which was already low relative to peer libraries, took a hit even as patron demand - especially for expensive electronic materials - remained high. And the traditional programs, like storytimes, were canceled.
While many libraries across the country had to curtail in-person services due to public health orders, the Boulder Public Library’s programs and services were canceled and remained canceled due to budget cuts, not public health.
As a result of persistent underfunding, many of those 2020 service disruptions continue into 2022:
- All library locations continue to operate on reduced hours due to staff cuts
- The award-winning BLDG 61 makerspace is only open two days a week
- Many programs, like BoulderReads, Reading Buddies, children’s programming, and STEM storytime outreach to the mobile home communities remain drastically reduced or fully paused due to staffing cuts
- Critical building and infrastructure maintenance remains unfunded
So, how’s the library doing?
The full results of the progress report can be viewed here. New patron accounts (people getting new library cards) have nearly returned to pre-pandemic levels. Door counts (people visiting the library) are double what they were in the first quarter of 2021. Overall, pandemic-era visit counts remain lower than pre-pandemic levels as a direct result of cuts to the number of hours the libraries are open, as well as of the Meadows branch fully closing for the first part of 2022 (Dec 28 thru Feb 11) due to an infrastructure emergency.
Circulation (books and materials being checked out) continues climbing back up in the first quarter of 2022, growing by 40% over 2021, and achieving 67% of pre-pandemic level in the same timeframe.
Programming attendance (people coming to events like storytimes, classes, etc) grew by 57% over the first quarter of 2021, even as the number of programs offered to children and teens have been severely reduced due to lack of staffing.
Is the library meeting its Master Plan goals?
An overview of the progress on the Master Plan goals was summarized in the Commission report from May 4. The review covers three successive levels of investment:
- Maintain service levels
- Meet community demand
- Expand services
While the report shows that the library is mostly maintaining service levels (the first level of investment shown above), its ability to achieve the two remaining investment goal levels remains fully out of reach due to lack of budget.
Below are some of the highlights (with red emphasis added by us to show the areas where underfunding has been identified as a barrier):
Goal: Meet community demand
- Collections and maintenance The collection (books and other materials) budget has not been increased since 2019.
Activate the Canyon Theater and Gallery Personnel resources are funded at a minimum level. Ongoing non-personnel costs are not funded.
Makerspace program expansion Not funded.
Expand makerspace facilities at the Main Library and branch libraries Completion of the makerspace in the north Boulder Branch Library is unfunded.
Activate the outside public spaces A strategy and funding plan for maintenance and programs has not been completed and is unfunded.
- Safety and security Analysis and resources to directly employ security personnel at adequate coverage level is unfunded.
Goal: Service expansion
- Provide resources and facilities to encourage civil civic dialogue: unfunded
- Open a corner library in Gunbarrel: unfunded
- Carnegie Library Restoration Plan (implementation funding): unfunded
- Facilities Sustainability Plan (Facilities analyses identified are unfunded for all investment levels.): unfunded
What will it take to get programs and services up to the level where they can meet demand and expand offerings?
The City could choose to fully fund the library by allocating more dollars to it from the General fund. However, this decision would be at the expense of other vital services like fire, health and human services, and police. In competition with these other services, the library never wins.
And, as soon as the next council is seated (2023), any commitment to fully funding the library could vanish in the next budget cycle, especially during times of economic downturn. This has been the consistent story of library funding over the past 30 years. This cycle of gradual, consistent cuts is how we got to where we are today.
Four consecutive Library Commissions (from 2018-present) have unanimously voted in favor of forming a library district, due to the findings from the library’s Master Plan, which included substantial community input, and showed that chronic underfunding of the library over many decades, as well as increased demand, had led to the community of users being underserved by the library’s current funding model.
A library district is the most equitable and sustainable way to provide the library with long-term funding. Property taxes are far more stable than sales tax revenues, and they are also not regressive, meaning that those with the least ability to pay end up paying the most as a proportion of their overall income, when it comes to sales taxes.
And more to the point: with over 30% of cardholders living outside of the city, it makes little sense to ask for a dedicated tax levied solely on residents within the city limits. A library district ensures that the taxbase more accurately matches the base of active library users – many of whom live in the county. Additionally, a library district levies a tax that is dedicated specifically for library services, long-term, so that we don’t have to worry about whether the library is getting the funding it needs year over year. This is how the majority of libraries across the state of Colorado are run: via library districts.
The library's current 2022 municipal budget is $13.78M. In 2022 — provided the 2020 budget cuts are restored, and the library gets funding for the new North Boulder Library — the library's budget within the City will be $15.5M.
The library district proposal will raise roughly $18.5M. This means that the district results in a 19.3% increase to the current library budget, or, an increase of $3M from current levels. In exchange, read here to see what the community gets as a result of this increase.
So, how is the library doing today? It’s struggling to meet basic community needs with an estimated $3.5M annual shortfall. The remaining staff wring what they can out of a reduced budget. But the library is at a crossroads at this moment.
Bottom line: a library district brings the library the funding it needs to provide service the community expects: about $3M per year more than what it currently has.