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Smarter Libraries through Technology: Serving the Needs of Small Public Libraries

Smart Libraries Newsletter [April 2021]

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Small public libraries work hard to meet the needs of their communities, despite their limited collections and budgets. The characteristics of smaller libraries differ in many ways from their peers that serve larger populations. Libraries in small towns and rural areas may depend less on state-of-the-art technology and rely instead more on personal service with a human touch.

Public libraries in the United States receive the vast majority of their funding from their local government. According to IMLS statistics, in 2018 public library funding in the US totaled $13.9 billion, of which $11.9 billion, or 86 percent, came from local government. State governments contributed $936 million (7 percent) and $46 million, a fraction of a percent, came through federal funding. Public libraries received $981 million from grants and other sources. Table 1 presents the distribution of library funding in Tennessee, illustrating the high reliance on local funding with minimal contributions at the state and federal level.

Funding Source Trends for Public Libraries in Tennessee
Year Total
Local Government State Government Federal Government Other Sources
2018 $136,513,372 $128,408,911 $380,887 $273,023 $7,450,551
2017 $129,398,299 $121,490,509 $297,301 $294,238 $7,316,251
2016 $123,027,758 $115,611,541 $356,360 $250,578 $6,809,279
2015 $118,795,687 $111,525,763 $385,967 $304,647 $6,579,310
2014 $112,098,016 $104,956,581 $385,706 $201,212 $6,554,517
2013 $109,879,005 $102,303,595 $342,647 $217,589 $7,015,174
2012 $107,832,753 $99,769,480 $426,096 $269,094 $7,368,083
2011 $107,721,824 $98,810,151 $1,352,617 $653,903 $6,905,153
2010 $104,405,165 $96,736,490 $465,988 $224,056 $6,978,631
2009 $113,554,233 $101,021,270 $100,520 $459,203 $11,973,240
2008 $103,860,496 $94,670,822 $439,274 $364,731 $8,385,669
2007 $100,722,931 $90,966,247 $563,257 $598,714 $8,594,713
2006 $101,228,670 $90,976,470 $375,955 $473,384 $9,402,861

Local funding of public libraries brings a sharp focus on the communities within their service areas. Public libraries' funding prospects are likewise closely connected to the economic conditions of their community. Small towns and rural areas generate limited taxes for local services such as libraries.

This funding context means that the technologies offered by libraries are in broad terms proportional to the size of their service population. Libraries serving urban areas almost always have a top-of-the-line ILS and a well-designed responsive website delivering access to robust collections of print and digital content and plentiful programs. The smallest tier of public libraries in the US have a far less impressive digital presence. Out of 9,521 public library systems in the United States about 840 (9 percent) do not offer a public website and 896 (9 percent) do not have an ILS.1 Though some may purposefully direct their budgets to areas other than technology, it seems likely that unconnected libraries would appreciate these basic technologies if funding were available. The patterns of funding and distribution of ILS and other technology systems differ in each state, providing interesting opportunities for analysis.

A look at the ILS products implemented in Vermont gives a good illustration of the impact of funding scenarios. Public libraries in Vermont are funded primarily from local taxes, and there are no major urban library systems. About 60 public libraries participate in the Vermont Organization of Koha Automated Libraries. Most of the others have implemented stand-alone ILS products, and 20 percent are not automated. Products from SirsiDynix (Symphony and Horizon) and Innovative (Sierra and Polaris), popular in the urban library arena, have almost no presence in Vermont. (See Table 2.)

Ohio provides an interesting contrast. Not only does Ohio have more urban areas, but its public libraries receive the highest percentage of state funding nationwide. In 2018, funding across public libraries in Ohio totaled $861 million. Funding from the state, at $394 million, exceeded the $390 million coming from local governments. (See Table 3.) This funding scenario is unusual in the US. Only in Hawaii, where the public library system is operated by the state, is there a higher proportion of library funding provided at the state level.

Rather than each library automating independently, a large proportion of the small libraries in Ohio participate in consortia, gaining access to top-level automation systems and other technology services. Compared to other states, the distribution of ILS products in municipal and consortial implementations is skewed toward high-end products (Table 4).

In the current automation environment, small public libraries have multiple options in the way they gain access to automation systems.


Small public libraries can gain access to full-featured ILS products through participation in a consortium. This arrangement usually comes with the benefit of integrated resource sharing. All the members gain access to each other's collections with expedited delivery to satisfy requests from any affiliated patron. Although business models vary, in most cases each local library will be charged a prorated amount to cover the licensing and support costs paid by the consortium to the ILS vendor. Libraries may also pay some fees for administration and courier services. In some cases, these benefits can be offset by perceived diminishment of control, where local preferences may be overridden by consortial practices or policies. Also, the complex features of the ILS products that scale to support large consortial implementations may exceed the needs of the smaller participants and seem overwhelming to the library worker.

The open source Evergreen ILS was designed for consortia of public libraries. Most Evergreen implementations comprise small or mid-sized public libraries. Multiple consortia, sponsored by statewide initiatives, are expanding by attracting libraries with standalone ILS implementations that can gain access to consortial resource sharing and lower automation costs.

Pragmatic Low-cost Products

Small public libraries implementing an ILS independently will naturally need to find an affordable product. It is common for a small public library to implement a product designed for K-12 school libraries because they are less expensive. These products cost a small fraction of the top-line ILS products designed for public libraries. While the features of a school library ILS may not be perfectly matched with a public library, it is a pragmatic option for those with limited budget possibilities.

ILS Products Designed for Small Libraries

A few ILS products have been developed especially for small libraries not participating in a consortium. These products not only target the features appreciated by smaller libraries, but also are affordable within their budgets. Products able to satisfy larger libraries must offer almost any feature imagined for their larger collections and complex operations. This expansive feature set is not only excessive for small libraries, but also makes the ILS unwieldy and difficult to use. Small libraries rarely have in-house technical expertise and may not have dedicated acquisitions or cataloging personnel. Web-based services that do not require software installed on local computers is preferred. The ideal ILS for small libraries embodies all these factors.

A handful of products fit into this genre, including: Apollo, a web-based ILS specifically designed for small to mid-sized public libraries.

  • LibraryWorld, a web-based ILS for smaller libraries of all types, used mostly in schools, but also used by small public libraries and special libraries.
  • Mandarin Oasis, a web-based ILS used by school, small public, and small academic libraries.
  • OPALS, an open source web-based ILS developed by Media Flex and designed for schools and other small libraries.

Some other ILS products are designed for mid-sized library sector, but also find considerable use in small libraries, such as Auto-Graphics VERSO, Library.Solution from The Library Corporation, and Atriuum from Book Systems.

This issue of Smart Libraries Newsletter features a new web-based integrated library system designed for small libraries. Developed by LibraryWorld, a pioneering company in the library automation arena, WikiLibrary was launched to provide a modern ILS for small libraries offered for a low annual subscription fee. LibraryWorld is positioning WikiLibrary, now available in a general beta release, to be its flagship offering as it gains new features and capabilities in the coming years.

View Citation
Publication Year:2021
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Smart Libraries Newsletter
Publication Info:Volume 41 Number 04
Issue:April 2021
Publisher:ALA TechSource
Series: Smarter Libraries through Technology
Place of Publication:Chicago, IL
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Record Number:26220
Last Update:2023-02-04 13:24:18
Date Created:2021-05-04 07:42:01