I recently received an important report on the state of libraries from WordsRated. WordsRated is a non-commercial, international research data and analytics group that studies reading, books, authors, and the publishing industry.
The report examines library trends in the US over the past three decades. Although it doesn’t say so explicitly, it specifically concerns public libraries. Here is a summary of its findings:
Are libraries dying?
The number of visits to libraries peaked at 1.59 billion in 2009. It has steadily declined since then. By 2019, ten years later, it had dropped to 1.25 billion visits, a 21.20% decrease.
What’s more, each person who visited a library at all visited less frequently, on average less than four times a year. Use of the physical collections declined by 19.21% at the same time.
It used to be that municipalities took pride in their local libraries and provided full financing. They may still take pride in libraries but no longer support them adequately. Libraries must rely on donations, fees, grants, and fines to make up the deficit between their costs and the amount of government support they receive.
That deficit for all American libraries adds up to $4.38 billion.
It may seem, therefore, that libraries are dying and that the bean counters are trying to hasten their death.
In fact, however, libraries are more popular than ever. There have never been more libraries or more registered library users. Libraries have larger collections than ever before. The collections are more heavily used than ever before.
The new world of digital collectionsIn case anyone hasn’t noticed, computers and the web have revolutionized society. And we still have journalists who find wonderment in the fact that libraries collect more than books! They have long also collected manuscripts, periodicals, musical scores, audiovisual materials, maps, photographs, and much more.
But now, more and more of libraries’ collections are available online. So is the catalog. People can and do use the library collection without ever leaving home. The decline in the use of the physical collection is more than offset by a 153.16% growth in the use of the digital collection between 2013 and 2019.
In 2003, more than 99% of library collections were physical and only 0.57% digital. The percentage represented by the digital collection grew steadily until 2011 and then explosively afterward. The digital collection in 2019 amounted to 54.75% of library collections, although that figure represents a small decrease from 2018’s 56.28% .
In part, that is because libraries have collected more electronic resources. In part, it’s because libraries have discarded much of the physical collection—bound journals, for example—as the electronic equivalents have become available.
As far as books are concerned, library collections had 816 million physical books in 2008, the peak year. By 2019, that number had declined to 693 million books, a 15.08% decrease. At the same time, libraries started collecting ebooks in earnest. A little later, they started collecting audiobooks in earnest.
In the past, libraries may have needed dozens of copies of a best-selling book. Then, as the public went on to something else, they had to discard most of them. They own one copy of a digital title. They make digital copies of it to lend to the public. When the loan period is over, those copies are simply deleted.
The new world of digital usage
The reason why physical collections have declined while digital collections have increased is that the public uses the digital collection more and the physical collection less. From 2014 to 2019, total use of library collections increased 48.03%. Use of the digital collections increased 145.11%, while use of the physical collection decreased 17.68%.
Nevertheless, people still borrow more physical items than digital items. Libraries lend 5.63 physical items per capita as opposed to 3.53 digital items.
People borrow each printed book in the library’s collection an average of 2.29 times per year, but they borrow each ebook and audio book less than 0.4 times per year.
Keep in mind that libraries maintain printed reference collections that don’t circulate. Most libraries don’t circulate their journals and magazines, although some lend bound periodicals. Many libraries don’t circulate physical audiovisual materials, either.
Therefore, the usage of the circulating collection is greater than that estimate. The estimate assumes that, since books comprise 86.15% of the physical collection, they comprise the same percentage of circulating materials. In fact, books probably circulate more than other printed formats.
Beyond library collections
Libraries have long offered more than their collections and the services based on them. Libraries offer meeting rooms for community organizations. They offer concerts, art shows, etc., as well as a variety of classes and clubs. Many offer makerspaces where people can use 3D printers and other equipment.
As the amount of space devoted to the physical collection decreases, many libraries have used it to offer more programs. In 2019, American libraries offered about 5.925 million different programs. That’s more than double what they offered in 2004. Children’s programming accounts for more than half of them. There are four times as many programs for children as for young adults, but young adult programming is growing at a faster rate.
Although total visits to libraries have decreased, programs count for a growing number of them. Programs accounted for just over 10% of all library visits in 2019, which is 84% more than in 2009. And comparing the ten states with the most programming against the ten with the least shows that the top states have significantly more visits and collection usage per capita.
Libraries’ strategy appears to be to offer not only more programs but more diversity of programs. In that way, they appeal to demographics in their communities that haven’t used libraries as much in the past.
Addressing the digital divide
I have said earlier that digital collections and online catalogs allow patrons to use library collections without leaving home. But that assumes patrons that have computers and high-speed internet service at home.
Not everyone does.
The gap between digital haves and have-nots is known as the digital divide. Libraries have long taken the lead in bridging the digital divide—and especially since the pandemic magnified its seriousness.
“Digital divide” refers to the distinction between people who have access to computers and high-speed internet at home and those who don’t. The gaps are related to economic inequality, age, physical disability, and living in rural instead of urban communities.
The WordsRated report analyzes data up through 2019 and therefore does not reflect pandemic-related issues.
The number of computers libraries owned has grown dramatically since the introduction of the first ones at the end of the 20th century. It grew 332.06% after 2009. The number declined slightly from 2018 to 2019. In 2020, of course, it didn’t matter how many computers libraries owned, since no one could use them.
But at the same time the number of computers declined, the number of wi-fi sessions increased 234.54% to almost half a billion. Apparently, people bringing their own computers to the library explains the reduction in the number of computers owned by libraries at least in part.
The number of wi-fi sessions must have increased even more dramatically during the pandemic. Libraries left their wi-fi on so patrons could use whatever bled into the parking lot. Some libraries took additional steps to provide expanded internet access.
Libraries have long provided access to other expensive equipment besides computers. They have had copiers and printers for many years. Now, many also offer access to 3D printers, scanners, gaming platforms, web design studios, and expensive software.
The economics of operating libraries
Partly because of digitization and electronics, it is more expensive to operate a library now than ever before. The cost of operating a library has doubled since 2016. On average, a library’s operating expenses now exceed $765 thousand dollars.
Staff salaries account for about two thirds of public libraries’ annual expenses. The exact percentage fluctuates, but it is somewhat higher in the 21st century than it was in the last decade of the 20th century.
Collection development accounts for a lower percentage of library budgets. Libraries spent $1.45 billion on their collections in 2019. That figure is the highest ever but amounts to only a little more than 10% of total expenses.
At the same time, the cost of each item added to the collection is less expensive than ever. According to WordsRated, the average price peaked at $1.34 in 2010. It has since come down to $0.81.
I frankly find those numbers incredible—unless, perhaps, it means the administrative cost of adding something to the collection after acquiring it. I know that libraries receive various gifts and free materials. Government document depositories receive everything from pamphlets to major legislation at no cost. But I also know how expensive books, journals, and other materials have become.
Digital materials, however, have become the least expensive part of the collection. It didn’t used to be that way. The report puts the average cost of a digital item at $0.46 in 2019 as compared to $19.64 in 2003.
Once a library has added materials to its collection, however, it still costs about three times as much for someone to use digital resources compared to physical resources.
Governments pay less than ever
Up until 1992, government funding covered all the annual expenses of public libraries. It hasn’t since. Total operating income for libraries in 2019 was $14.31 billion. Government funded only $13.28 of that. The remaining $1.02 billion has come from grants, monetary gifts, monetary gifts, fees for library services (such as copying) and library fines.
There is a growing trend, however, of libraries eliminating fines. Doing so can hurt the library’s budget, but charging fines tends to have the greatest effect on the least affluent patrons. And, apparently, no effect on the return of library materials.
Local governments pay 85.69% of all government funding. Federal and state governments have contributed less and less in recent years. In fact, non-government funding sources have surpassed state funding since 2009.
The lack of state funds has had a negative effect on libraries and their patrons. The report compared the ten states that provided the least funding per capita with the ten that provided the most. The top ten states had
- 99% more visits per capita
- 93% more registered borrowers per capita
- 31% more programs per capita
- 76% higher program attendance per capita
- 49% higher total collection use per capita
- 70% higher physical collection use per capita
- 52% higher digital collection use per capita
- 31% more kids’ books borrowed per capita
The number of central libraries and their branches has remained fairly consistent. Bookmobile service, on the other hand, declined 39.31% from 1992 (1,066 bookmobiles) to 2015 (647). The number of bookmobiles has increased slightly since then, with 671 in 2019. This trend has not been uniform. 18 states actually increased the number of bookmobiles.
Federal guidelines define what a living wage is for a family of two working adults and one child. Only three states pay that much to library staff.
Libraries change with the times. They now provide more access to a wider variety of resources than ever before. And this despite numerous obstacles. Libraries have survived the computer revolution, recession, pandemic, and funding challenges.
Count on libraries to continue to find innovative ways to serve their communities as society becomes more digital.
State of US public libraries – more popular & digital than ever / WordsRated. February 17, 2022