State Aid to Public Libraries & ARIS Web Blog

What Happened to Public Libraries During the Great Depression?

Because we were curious, we took a quick look at Massachusetts during the Great Depression, between 1929 and 1933.  Thanks to Ned Richards for compiling these facts while I looked into the Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

The following quotes are from the Annual Reports of the Board of Library Commissioners.

In 1931…

“appropriations were actually cut in very few cases, but on the other hand, none were increased”…”but for 1932 the indications are for drastic cuts of 10, 15, 20% in expenses and salaries in many of the city libraries. The small towns feel the unemployment situation less.”

In 1932…

“In common with all other state departments this Division (MBLC) accepted an initial cut in its budget of 5 percent. To this was added later a voluntary further reduction of 3 per cent.”

“The use of public libraries has grown the past year beyond all precedent. Reading rooms have been crowded. The number of books borrowed in 1932 exceeded 31 million volumes, nearly 8.5 million more than in 1930.”

“Libraries reporting from 10 to 40 per cent increase in circulation for 1932 are in the majority; several report from 60 – 80 percent and a few 100 per cent and over.”

“About one third of the public libraries in the Commonwealth have suffered little or no loss in income. These are in the residential and rural districts less affected by the depression. Of the other two-thirds, those in the cities and industrial towns have been hit the hardest. Here decreases in appropriation or endowment income range from 8 to 75 per cent.”

” (Library) Hours have been curtailed, branches closed, postcards substituted for letters, printed bulletins, lists, and annual reports cut out.”

“Librarians’ salaries in the best of times are not commensurate with those paid in similar professions but among a fairly large proportion of the libraries salary cuts ranging from 7 to 40 per cent have been put into effect.”

1933…

“Fifty-seven per cent of the libraries report reduced appropriations.  Book budgets were cut in 50% of these, salaries in 59%, supplies, maintenance etc. in 18%”….”salary decreases ranged from 5% to 50%, but the majority were 10% ‘voluntary’ or ‘donated’ cuts.  Not more than half a dozen libraries were obliged to reduce their personnel.  A few branches were closed, in many instances hours were shortened, several libraries tried the experiment of Sunday closing.”

1934…

“Conditions in the libraries remain much the same as for the past two years except that there is no longer such an abnormal drain on their resources either in books or service.”…”In some cases it is due to reopened factories or the moving away from the city or state of unemployed mill operatives and other borrowers of the early ‘depression’ days, but mainly the cause seems to be lack of sufficient books due to drastic cuts in the book budgets.”

“…consider the following excerpt from a newspaper editorial on a New York city library whose expenses and service had been seriously curtailed:  ‘ The Mayor and his cabinet have accepted the premise that it is  uneconomical to let an institution fall too far behind because of the depression, and the 1935 allocation is such as to permit that institution to retrieve some of its unfortunate losses in equipment and operation during the last two or three years.  Obviously this is not an extravagance, but straight sense.’”  [my emphasis]

Per Capita Support for Public Libraries…

  • 1929  $1.00/cap,  $12.59 in today’s dollars
  • 1930  no data
  • 1931  $1.00/cap,  $14.16 in today’s dollars
  • 1932  $0.95/cap,  $14.93 in today’s dollars
  • 1933  $1.08/cap [ rose for “some unexplained reason”],  $17.89 in today’s dollars
  • 1934   $0.914/cap,  $14.69 in today’s dollars
  • 1935   $0.92/cap,  $14.46 in today’s dollars
  • 1936   $0.92/cap,  $14.25 in today’s dollars

The annual percent change in the CPI from 1918 to 2008 for all Urban Consumers (not seasonally adjusted).

(from the Bureau of Labor Statistics: see more at their website)

This is a line graph showing the Consumer Price Index Annual Percent Changes from 1918 to 2008, the data is listed below the graph.

Annual Change in Consumer Price Index--1918 to 2008

Year   Value
1918   18
1919   14.6
1920   15.6
1921   -10.5
1922   -6.1
1923   1.8
1924   0.0
1925   2.3
1926   1.1
1927   -1.7
1928   -1.7
1929   0.0
1930   -2.3
1931   -9
1932   -9.9
1933   -5.1
1934   3.1
1935   2.2
1936   1.5
1937   3.6
1938   -2.1
1939   -1.4
1940   0.7
1941   5.0
1942   10.9
1943   6.1
1944   1.7
1945   2.3
1946   8.3
1947   14.4
1948   8.1
1949   -1.2
1950   1.3
1951   7.9
1952   1.9
1953   0.8
1954   0.7
1955   -0.4
1956   1.5
1957   3.3
1958   2.8
1959   0.7
1960   1.7
1961   1.0
1962   1.0
1963   1.3
1964   1.3
1965   1.6
1966   2.9
1967   3.1
1968   4.2
1969   5.5
1970   5.7
1971   4.4
1972   3.2
1973   6.2
1974   11.0
1975   9.1
1976   5.8
1977   6.5
1978   7.6
1979   11.3
1980   13.5
1981   10.3
1982   6.2
1983   3.2
1984   4.3
1985   3.6
1986   1.9
1987   3.6
1988   4.1
1989   4.8
1990   5.4
1991   4.2
1992   3.0
1993   3.0
1994   2.6
1995   2.8
1996   3.0
1997   2.3
1998   1.6
1999   2.2
2000   3.4
2001   2.8
2002   1.6
2003   2.3
2004   2.7
2005   3.4
2006   3.2
2007   2.8
2008   3.8

This post was written by dcarty on April 2, 2009

Posted under Library Statistics

Tags: , ,

4 Comments so far

  1. Candace Miller May 29, 2010 9:25 pm

    Our county, Siskiyou, in far northern California is facing closure of all its libraries effective July 1st due to economic cutbacks. I was looking on your website for information to use in my letter pleading to the county supervisors to find a way to keep the libraries open. Thank you for your information.
    Candace

  2. dcarty June 9, 2010 12:57 pm

    Candace,

    You are most welcome.

  3. Carrie Dyer November 18, 2010 10:04 pm

    i am doing a report about institutional collections and their influence on the Depression. THis website is very useful. thanks so much.

  4. dcarty November 19, 2010 3:44 pm

    Carrie,

    I am glad that you found it useful.

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