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Public Library Use

ALA Library Fact Sheet Number 6

The American Library Association is often asked to answer questions about public libraries: How are they used, who is using them, and what do people think of them? This Fact Sheet is designed to help answer these questions. It contains information from recent studies that document public library use and opinions held by individuals about public libraries.

Reported Usage by Individuals

In March 2002, the KRC Research and Consulting conducted a survey for the American Library Association. The purpose of this survey was to measure the public's usage and perception of public libraries. One thousand people over the age of 18 were interviewed by phone. The study has a margin of error of plus or minus 3%.   It found that:

  • The library is most often used for educational purpose (46%) followed by entertainment (46%).
  • 62% of respondents have a library card.
  • 66% of all respondents reported using the public library at least once in the last year in person, by phone, or by computer.
  • Of those respondents who reported using the public library in person in the last year, 67% said they had taken out books, 47% had consulted a librarian, 47% used reference materials, 31% read newspapers or magazines, 26% connected to the Internet, 25% took out CDs or videos, and 14% heard a speaker, saw a movie or attended a special program. 
  • 31% of the respondents had children, and 69% of these respondents said that they brought their children to the library. 


  • 91% of the total respondents believed libraries will exist in the future, despite all of the information available on the Internet. 
  • 91% believe libraries are changing and dynamic places with a variety of activities for the whole family. 
  • 90% believe libraries are places of opportunity for education, self-help and offer free access to all.
  • 88% agreed libraries are unique because you have access to nearly everything on the Web or in print, as well as personal service and assistance in finding it. 
  • 83% believe libraries and librarians play an essential role in our democracy and are needed now more than ever.

For more information on this survey, see the press release for National Library Week 2002,

Library usage up in wake of recession
New studies highlight use, value of libraries as Americans celebrate National Library Week

Reported Usage by Households

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES, <>) published public library usage statistics from its 1996 National Household Education Survey in Use of Public Library Services by Households in the United States: 1996 (1997). The survey used a sample of 55,708 households. An adult member of each household was asked if any household member had used the public library.

  • 65% of the households reported that individuals in the household had used the library in the last year, and 44% reported that individuals in the household had used it in the month prior to the interview.
  • 61% of households with children under the age of 18 reported using the public library in the past month. Only 35% of households without children under the age of 18 reported using the public library in the past month.
  • In the month prior to the survey 36% of all households reported borrowing from or dropping off a book to the public library, 18% reported visiting the library for some other purpose like a lecture or story hour, 14% reported calling to renew a book or to get information, and 4% reported using a home computer to link to the public library.

This survey can be viewed as well as downloaded as an Adobe Acrobat Reader PDF document at the NCES Web site at:

The print edition can be ordered from:
U.S. Department of Education
ED Pubs
PO Box 1398
Jessup, MD 20794-1398
Telephone: 1-877-4ED-PUBS (877-433-7827)
Web Site:

REPORTED USAGE by racial/ethnic group

Unpublished statistics concerning library use by persons of different racial/ethnic groups based on data from the survey described above were included in "Using Public Libraries: What Makes a Difference?" in the November 1997 issue of American Libraries. The following table is taken from that article.


White Black Hispanic Asian/Pacific Island American Indian/Native Alaskan other
Used in last month 44% 45% 41% 53% 46% 51%
Used in last year 65% 63% 58% 72% 65% 66%

Usage Reported by Libraries

Public Libraries in the United States: Fiscal Year 2003 (2005) published in September of 2005 by the National Center for Education Statistics contains the most recent usage statistics as reported by libraries. The 9,211 respondent libraries reported:

Total visits: 1,284,175,000 4.6 per capita
Total circulation: 1,965,000,000 7.0 per capita
Circulation of children's materials: 699,947,000 35.6% of total circulation

This publication can be viewed as well as downloaded as an Adobe Reader PDF document at the NCES Web site at:

Librarians have long believed that when the economy goes down, public library use goes up. In February 2002, ALA contracted with the University of Illinois Library Research Center (LRC) to study library use over the last five years, at the twenty-five U.S. public libraries serving populations of 1 million or more. Using data from eighteen of those large libraries, the study found that circulation has increased significantly since March 2001, when the National Bureau of Economic Research pegged the beginning of the latest recession. Using statistical analysis, the LRC found that circulation in March 2001 was 8.3 percent higher than would be expected from the trend line that started in January 1997. It stayed well above that trend line, an average of 9% above, for the rest of the year. To find out more, once again access ALA's press release on the 2002 National Library Week, at Library usage up in wake of recession.

March 2006

For more information on this or other fact sheets, contact the ALA Library Reference Desk by telephone: 800-545-2433, extension 2153; fax: 312-280-3255; e-mail:; or regular mail: ALA Library, American Library Association, 50 East Huron Street, Chicago, IL 60611-2795.

Related Links

Households Use of Public and Other Types of Libraries: 2002 (U.S. Dept. of Ed. report - 2007)
In electronic age, Americans' use of library services grows (02/22/2006 press release for 2006 @ your library® Household Survey)
2006 @ your library® Household Survey: Attitudes Toward Public Libraries (PDF)
2006 @ your library® Household Survey - Detailed Study Slides (PDF)