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Smarter Libraries through Technology: Technologies to Address Public Library Trends

Smart Libraries Newsletter [October 2019]

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Over the last few weeks I have been aggregating public library statistics into the directory on Library Technology Guides. These data sets are made publicly available by the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) for public libraries in the United States. I see interesting possibilities in making associations between technology services implemented and use patterns, demographics, or collection characteristics. I have created a few tools to view individual library statistics and aggregations of statistics by state and for all states combined.1 While I'm in the early phase of this investigation, some patterns already stand out.

One obvious pattern concerns library circulation statistics. Among public libraries in the United States, circulation transactions have generally declined in recent years. When considering the years from 2006 through 2017, aggregated public library circulation in the US peaked in about 2010. Similar patterns can be seen state-by-state, though there are also interesting variations. In California the trend is even more pronounced, with peak aggregated circulation for the state at 245,410,066 in 2010, which diminished to 208,171,464 in 2017. Though the numbers are at a substantially lower scale, Tennessee statistics have seen a mostly steady increase since 2006. Since 2016, IMLS statistics have been broken down between physical loans and digital access. Not surprisingly the use of digital materials, such as e-books and audiobooks, has increased, though not at a level that offsets the decline in print.

Library visits track closely with circulation transactions. Nationwide, library visits peaked in 2010 with gradual declines since. Program attendance, on the other hand, has seen substantial increases. Since 2011, these figures have increased from 4 million to 5.4 million.

It's also interesting to consider the aggregate expenditures for public libraries. Since 2006, total public library expenditures have increased from $9.6 billion to $12.4 billion. Cost per capita (total expenditures divided by total population) was $38.50 in 2017. Although this figure has increased gradually since 2006 in absolute dollars, it represents a decrease when adjusted for inflation. Over that period, spending for print resources have declined from $900 million to $754 million while electronic resource expenditures have increased from $125 million to $374 million. In addition to the implications that these trends have for internal library strategies, it is important to highlight the massive impact that libraries have on the US publishing industry, as library materials represent a significant portion of publishing revenue.

These statistics have important implications in how libraries plan strategies, especially those related to outreach and technology infrastructure. The persistent declines in visits and lending should motivate public libraries to invest more heavily in their marketing and outreach efforts. When looking at individual library statistics, there are many that have been maintaining or even increasing these numbers. While it's not at all certain that increased marketing would overcome other societal factors to draw more persons to visit and borrow from libraries, it is an area of critical concern. The dramatic growth in program attendance shows interest and appreciation in library services. Overall the trends emphasize the need for technologies that are able to spark increased engagement and interest in drawing visitors to libraries' physical collections and facilities as well as to their virtual presence and digital resources.

The proportions of investments in content are shifting steadily in favor of electronic over print. These trend lines do not necessarily indicate that spending on electronic resources in public libraries will exceed that of print in the near future. Even at current proportions, public libraries are spending about one third on average for electronic resources and require ever more sophisticated technical tools to responsibly manage this aspect of their collections. The dominance of electronic resources in academic libraries drove a dramatic shift toward the comprehensive resource management approach embraced by library services platforms. I would anticipate that public library automation systems likewise will face the need to substantially boost their capabilities for managing multiformat collections.

It will be interesting to pursue more detailed analysis of these statistics to surface any additional trends that future technology platforms will need to address to strengthen the success of public libraries in the way that they serve their communities. In broad strokes, the initial message seems to indicate that the critical needs have more to do with engagement and analytics than operational efficiency.


  1. See Library Technology Guides, “IMLS Statistics for Public Libraries,” /imls/trends/.
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Publication Year:2019
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Smart Libraries Newsletter
Publication Info:Volume 39 Number 10
Issue:October 2019
Publisher:ALA TechSource
Series: Smarter Libraries through Technology
Place of Publication:Chicago, IL
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Record Number:24772
Last Update:2022-11-25 14:30:01
Date Created:2019-12-21 11:35:34