The future of libraries, with numbers

I’ve made a lot of posts wondering about the future of libraries – about how they risk being supplanted by both electronic books/magazines and by the internet itself. And yet, when Real Numbers ™ appear, my concerns seem mooted.

The Institute of Museum and Library Services – part of our US federal government – released an eleven-year brief of a few usage statistics for public libraries. You can get a copy here. It covers 1997-2007, which is certainly more than enough to see the leading impact of electronics and internet, right? Oh, and to expand this I’ll be pulling from several years worth of the annual library statistics survey, presently also kept at the imls.

Let’s start with some background numbers. Throughout the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s, per capita visitation wobbled between 3.7 and 4.0. That means the door counter’s final number for the year would be 3.7 to 4 times the total population of the community (city, county, etc) served. Circulation per capita during the same period ranged from 6.3 to 6.6 with a HUGE modal result of 6.5. Because it’s relevant in what’s coming up I’m also going to point out the circulation per visit tended to run between 1.63 and 1.68. Simplifying, that means you’d see 10 checkouts over 6 visits on average. Yes, that’s because you had people come in for programs and to use the special collections rooms and other such times that they didn’t check things out, but it was generally a trustworthy number.

That ran through, well, through 1997, and to some extent through 1999. In 2000 through 2007 there were some drastic changes to these numbers. I know I foreshadowed already, but I want to point out again that the favored theory of the pundits is that with the rise of the internet and electronic age libraries will be less useful.

Let’s start with visits per capita – fairly constantly between 3.7 and 4.0. In 1997 the number was about 4.1, and it increased EVERY SINGLE YEAR, with the 2007 number being 4.9 visits per capita. Yeah, that seems tiny, but only because we’ve diced it so small in the first place. For libraries as a whole in a series of years during which funding tended to lag inflation, average service was increased by just under 20%.

And there’s circulation per capita. Circulation per capita didn’t explode as fast or as rapidly as visits per capita. In fact, even through 2000 the number hovered near 6.5. In 2001 it spiked to about 6.8, a new high, and it continued to grow every year thereafter. The 2007 circulation per capita was 7.4.

It’s when you combine the two that you see something that begins to support the pundits, but not totally. You see, for a short period circulation per visit declined. By 2000 it had reached 1.5 items per visit, down from the earlier nominal 1.63. However, it quit falling. It remained around 1.5 items per visit throughout 2007.

To clarify the mud a little bit, this implies that for a bit there was an increase in people coming to the library for reasons other than to check out a book, but the ratio stabilized – to the extent we can probably start calling whatever it is an expected role of the library.

Conjecturally, the cause is computer connections. That is, people going to the library to use computers. The report shows that public access internet computers in the libraries have increased significantly on a per capita basis. While that doesn’t prove that’s why the people are there, it’s worth noting that there’s been no significant changes in numbers and types of programs that would also draw non-circulating attendance in large numbers.

Speaking professionally, I think librarians – certainly directors and higher – need to get a handle on what their libraries are doing. Obviously continuing good collection practices (development and circulation), services (reference and programs) and access is still required; there is no need to quit doing what we do well. But libraries are doing MORE, and I think in order to do the best we can at whatever that “more” might be we need to figure out what it is. Just having a bunch of computers in a room may not really be the answer.

Oh, I said I needed to mention the metro-nonmetro issue. It only shows up in the cited report, though I suspect we can crank historical numbers as well. The thing is that the national trends are closely correlated to the metro trends (or maybe the other way around). Roughly half the libraries are metro, but they serve easily over 80% of the total population. Thus the correlation. This shows up particularly well in the details.

In the non-metro areas, visits per capita, while lower than both the national average and the metro average, have also been increasing at a fairly high rate over the decade. However, circulation per capita has remained fairly flat. (I’m assuming that the somewhat lower than national circ per cap number is in the range I would find if I could dig out metro/non-metro numbers from the earlier reports – it seems supported by the other numbers but the assumption instead of actual data needs noted.) The consequence of this is that while metro circ per visit numbers have stayed fairly flat, circ per visit for non-metro numbers have continued on a downward trend.

That means that half the libraries in the nation have an even greater need to identify what they’re doing and how to do it better. Total visits are increasing, but NONE of the new visitors appear to be checking anything out.

There is some implication that part of the difference is electronic media that can be circulated. Metro libraries have just about doubled the proportion of collection that is electronic, while non-metro numbers are still in the 5% range. It is possible that non-electronic circulation per capita is actually flat as it is for non-metro and that the increase that makes circ per visit flat comes from increasing electronic circulation. However, there are no numbers by which to check this.

The one constant that shows is that libraries are NOT being killed by the internet, nor by electronic media; at least, not yet. The biggest problem many of them face, however, is budget controllers who THINK they’re being killed by the internet and so are cutting funding. I don’t know if we’re at the bone yet, but if not it’s getting close. That will have an inevitable impact on performance.

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