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A public library is a library that is accessible by the general public and is usually funded from public sources, such as taxes. It is operated by librarians and library paraprofessionals, who are also civil servants.

There are five fundamental characteristics shared by public libraries: they are generally supported by taxes (usually local, though any level of government can and may contribute); they are governed by a board to serve the public interest; they are open to all, and every community member can access the collection; they are entirely voluntary in that no one is ever forced to use the services provided; and they provide basic services without charge.[1]

Public libraries exist in many countries across the world and are often considered an essential part of having an educated and literate population. Public libraries are distinct from research libraries, school libraries, and other special libraries in that their mandate is to serve the general public's information needs rather than the needs of a particular school, institution, or research population. Public libraries also provide free services such as preschool story times to encourage early literacy, quiet study and work areas for students and professionals, or book clubs to encourage appreciation of literature in adults. Public libraries typically allow users to borrow books and other materials, i.e., take off the premises temporarily; they also have non-circulating reference collections and provide computer and Internet access to patrons.

After being established and funded through a resolution, public referendum or similar legal process, the library is usually managed by a board of directors, library council or other local authority. A librarian is designated as the library director or library manager. In small municipalities, city or county government may serve as the library board and there may be only one librarian involved in the management and direction of the library. Library staff who are not involved in management are known in the United States and some other English-speaking countries as "library paraprofessionals" or "library support staff."[116] They may or may not have formal education in library and information science. Support staff have important roles in library collection development, cataloging, technical support, and the process of preparing books for borrowing. All of these tasks may be referred to as technical services, whether or not they involve information technology.[117] While the library's governing board has ultimate authority to establish policy, many other organizations may participate in library management or library fundraising, including civic and voluntary associations, women's clubs, Friends of the Library groups, and groups established to advise the library on the purchase and retention of books.

State and n

State and national governments may also have a role in the establishment and organization of public libraries. Many governments operate their own large libraries for public and legislative use (e.g., state libraries, the Library of Congress, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France). These governments can also influence local libraries by reserving formal recognition or funding for libraries that meet specific requirements. Finally, associations of library and information professionals, such as the American Library Association (ALA) and the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) help establish norms and standard procedures, secure funding, advocate at the state or national level and certify library schools or information schools.

Public libraries are funded through a wide combination of sources, the most significant which is usually local or municipal funding.[118][119] The citizens who use a local library support it via the city or county government, or through a special-purpose district, which is a local government body that has independent leadership and may levy its own taxes.[120] Local funding may be supplemented by other government funding. For example, in the United States, the state and federal governments provide supplementary funding for public libraries through state aid programs, the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) and E-Rate. State and local governments may also offer cities and counties large grants for library construction or renovation. Private philanthropy has also had a significant role in the expansion and transformation of library services, and, like other educational institutions, some libraries may be partially funded by an endowment. Some proactive librarians have devised alliances with patron and civic groups to supplement their financial situations. Library "friends" groups, activist boards, and well organized book sales also supplement government funding.

Public funding has always been an important part of the definition of a public library. However, with local governments facing financial pressures due to the Great Recession, some libraries have explored ways to supplement public funding. Cafes, bakeries, bookstores, gift shops and similar commercia

Public funding has always been an important part of the definition of a public library. However, with local governments facing financial pressures due to the Great Recession, some libraries have explored ways to supplement public funding. Cafes, bakeries, bookstores, gift shops and similar commercial endeavors are common features of new and urban libraries. The Boston Public Library has two restaurants and an online store which features reproductions of photographs and artwork.[97] Pressure on funding has also led to closer partnerships between libraries, and between libraries and for-profit ventures, in order to sustain the library as a public space while providing business opportunities to the community.[121] While still fairly uncommon, public-private partnerships and "mixed-use" or "dual-use" libraries, which provide services to the public and one or more student populations, are occasionally explored as alternatives. Jackson County, Oregon (US), closed its entire 15-branch public library system for six months in 2007, reopening with under a public-private partnership and a reduced schedule.[122] Small fees, such as library fines or printing fees, may also offset the cost of providing library services, though fines and fees do not usually have a significant role in library funding. The decline of support from local governments has left libraries compensating at the expense of their patrons. In the article ‘Waking Up to Advocacy in a New Political Reality for Libraries,” as early as the 1980s, libraries began charging fees and accruing fines for services rendered. These services included “printing, notarizing, scanning, photocopying, photo services, library cards for those who live outside of the service area, meeting room usage, document searches, inter-library loan, and e-book checkouts, and among many others”.[123]

Data shows disparities in private and public libraries, exemplifying that libraries in rural areas possess weaker technological infrastructures and fewer full-time employees holding the title of Librarian. Data shows that funding and service levels differ across and within states (Real et al., 2008, Rosser-Hogben, 2004).Rural libraries tend to have smaller collections, lower bandwidth rates, less staff and fewer hours of operations (Real et al., 2008, Rosser-Hogben, 2004). Access to high quality internet may be limited for lower-income individuals, ethnic minorities and rural residents (Real et al., 2008, Rosser-Hogben, 2004). Due to underused libraries in less-advantaged communities, local governments have permanently closed libraries effecting individuals that are less educated.[124]

Although usage of public libraries has increased significantly in recent decades, libraries are under intense financial pressure and scrutiny.[125][126] The American Library Association says media reports it compiled in 2004 showed some $162 million in funding cuts to libraries nationwide.[127] In 2009, 40% of states reported a decline in state aid for libraries.[128] In 2012, Great Britain lost over 200 libraries to budget cuts, part of a general trend of fiscal austerity in Europe.[129] However, there are signs of stabilization in library funding.[130] As of 2012, funding for construction and renovation of new libraries remains steady.[131] Cities' plans to close public libraries are frequently cancelled or scaled back. In 2012, voters in 13 U.S. states approved new funding for library construction or operations.[132] In the UK, the Library of Birmingham, opened in 2013, is the largest cultural space in Europe.[133]

Survey data suggests the public values free public libraries. A Public Agenda survey in 2006 reported 84% of the public said maintaining free library services should be a top priority for their local library. Public libraries received higher ratings for effectiveness than other local services such as parks and police. But the survey also found the public was mostly unaware of financial difficulties facing their libraries.[134] In various cost-benefit studies libraries continue to provide returns on the taxpayer dollar far higher than other municipal spending.[135] A 2008 survey discusses comprehensively the prospects for increased funding in the United States, saying in conclusion "There is sufficient, but latent, support for increased library funding among the voting population."[136] A 2013 Pew Research Center survey reported that 90% of Americans ages 16 and older said that the closing of their local public library would affect their community, with 63% saying it would have a "major" impact.[137]