Public Libraries

state of america's libraries report 2011

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A key resource for the jobless, entrepreneurs –– and the community

Local public libraries continue to play a vital role in communities nationwide as unemployment rates hover near 9 percent –– or higher, in many areas –– and people look for ways to make ends meet.

More than two-thirds of adults responding to a January 2011 Harris Poll Quorum (PDF). created for the American Library Association said that the library’s assistance in starting a business or finding a job was important to them. These figures were up from a year earlier, testament both to Americans’ entrepreneurial spirit and libraries’ role in nourishing that spirit.

The ALA conducted the January study as part of a Harris Interactive telephone omnibus study conducted Jan. 19-23 with a nationwide cross-section of 1,012 adults.

Table 1: Who has a library card, and who goes to the library

Most likely to have a library card

Most likely to have visited the library in past year

Working mothers (81%) Working mothers (88%)
Working women (78%) Working women (78%)
Postgraduates (77%) Women aged 35-54 (77%)
Women age 18-34 (75%) Postgraduates (77%)
College graduates (71%) Those with some college (74%)
Women (70%) Women aged 18-34 (74%)
Household income of $100,000+ (65%) People in the Midwest (73%)
Democrats (65%) Women (72%)

Source: 2011 Harris Poll National Quorum

The poll results also indicate that Americans are making use of their libraries at steady or increasing rates. Sixty-five percent of those polled said they had visited the library in the past year, including visits in person (62 percent), over the phone or online. Women (72 percent) are significantly more likely than men (58 percent) to fall into this category, especially working women, working mothers, and women aged 18 to 54. The adults most likely to have visited the library also include those who are most highly educated and those who earn the highest incomes.

Among those who visited the library in person, fully 80 percent said that the number of in-person visits they have made has either increased or stayed about the same in the past six months. Eighty-two percent of those who telephoned the library in the past year reported that their telephone use of the library has either increased (16 percent) or stayed the same (66 percent) in the past six months. This proportion reflects a notable increase from a year earlier, when 73 percent of those who telephoned the library reported increased or steady usage over the prior six months.

Notably, 90 percent of those who accessed their public library via computer reported that their computer use of library services has either remained the same (58 percent) or increased (32 percent) during the recent past, an increase from 85 percent a year earlier.

Overall, 58 percent of those surveyed said they had a library card. Among those with a card, the largest group was, again, women, especially working women and working mothers. College graduates and those with household incomes of more than $100,000 were also well represented among card holders, according to the survey (see Table 1, above).

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Survey shows strong satisfaction with library services

Large majorities of adults agreed with five statements assessing the value of the public library as an institution in their community. The Harris Poll revealed that the most powerful message pertains to the democratic nature of libraries, as they level the playing field for all Americans in the provision of materials free of charge.

Table 2: Assessing the public library’s value in the community

Statement Agree
Because it provides free access to materials and resources, the public library plays an important role in giving everyone a chance to succeed. 94%
The library improves the quality of life in our community. 91%
The public library is important to my family’s education. 84%
Because it provides free information regarding local, state and federal elections, the library is critical to democracy. 80%
My public library deserves more funding. 79%

Source: 2011 Harris Poll National Quorum

Seven in 10 adults are very (44 percent) or extremely satisfied (26 percent) with their public library, closely matching the proportion who felt this way in 2010. When comparing the public library to other tax-supported services, almost one-third of adults (31 percent) rank the library at the top of the list. Senior citizens (38 percent) are significantly more likely than other older adults (25 percent of those aged 55 to 64) to rank the benefits of the public library at the top of the list of tax-supported services.

Americans continue to value the importance of services provided by public libraries. In fact, when considering a list of 11 library services, two-thirds or more of the American public consider every factor to be very or somewhat important to them personally, surpassing the proportions in the 2010 study. The most highly valued services pertain to the provision of free information and services that promote education and lifelong learning. More than nine in 10 Americans (93 percent) believe that it is very important or somewhat important that library services are free, representing an increase of two percentage points from 2010.

Similar proportions place great value in the library’s provision of information for school and work (91 percent, up 5 percentage points), as well as the fact that the library provides a place for lifelong learning (90 percent, up three percentage points), and that the library enhances one’s education (89 percent, up five percentage points).

Eighty-four percent of adults consider it very or somewhat important that the library serves as a community center, is a source of cultural programs and activities (83 percent, up four percentage points from a year earlier) and provides computer access, training and support (83 percent, up seven percentage points). Three-quarters of Americans consider it very or somewhat important that the library provides health information (75 percent, up two percentage points) and financial information (75 percent, up six percentage points) that is accurate and up-to-date.

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Computer use increases even (or especially) during recession

The same recession that cut into the funding of many public libraries made them a key resource for people looking for work or seeking to use online government services.

Eighty-eight percent of U.S. public libraries provide free access to job databases and other job services, and 67 percent report library staff helped patrons complete online job applications, according to the 2010 “Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study,” released in June 2010 by the American Library Association. Libraries also provide access to civil service exam materials (75 percent) and software to help patrons create résumés and other employment materials (69 percent).

Public access to these resources, however, is increasingly limited in many communities (see “Library Funding,” above).

Other findings from the study:

  • Two-thirds (67 percent) of U.S. public libraries report they are the only provider of free public access to computers and the Internet in their communities.
  • Public computer and Wi-Fi use increased last year at more than 70 percent of libraries; 82 percent of libraries now provide Wi-Fi access (see map, “ WiFi Access in U.S. Public Libraries”).
  • The great majority (89 percent) of libraries provide formal or informal technology training, including classes in computer skills, software use and online job-seeking.
  • Almost two-thirds (66 percent) of libraries provide assistance to patrons completing government forms.

“Computer and Internet access at public libraries connect millions of Americans to economic, educational, and social opportunity each year, but libraries struggle to replace aging computer workstations and provide the high-speed Internet connections patrons need,” said Jill Nishi, deputy director of U.S. Libraries at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “As demand for these services rise, public and private investment to support public access technology at libraries is more critical than ever.”

The study, funded by the Gates Foundation and the ALA, can be found online at


More than two-thirds of public libraries and an even larger proportion (94 percent) of academic libraries now offer e-books, according to a survey conducted in August 2010. See the Library Technology section to learn more about the battle over the future of widely used e-books.


The Christian Broadcasting Network aired a report in November 2010 on the increasing use of U.S. public libraries and a decline in their funding. The newscast featured interviews with ALA Executive Director Keith Michael Fiels and Paula Kiely, director of the Milwaukee Public Library.

Case in point: The Florida Library Association took a “snapshot” of the Delray Beach Public Library Jan. 25 that showed that on that day, the library had 2,500 visitors, issued 36 library cards, gave 330 people use of its free computers, tapped another 400 wireless users into its free Wi-Fi, taught computer skills to 68 people via classes, answered 125 reference questions, helped 13 students with homework, and hosted 104 adults at library-sponsored programs . . . among other things. (The population of Delray Beach in 2010 was 65,022.)

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For more than 87 million people, the public library is still the place to go

Public libraries tended to experience slightly greater output in all measures last year, reversing last year’s slight dip, according to a report from the Public Library Data Service (PLDS), a project of the Public Library Association, a division of the ALA.

The PLDS received responses from 1,105 libraries ranging in size from serving 125 to serving more than 3.5 million people in their legal service areas.

PLDS libraries served 87.8 million registered patrons in 2009, 53.8 percent of a total legal service area population of 163.3 million in the United States and Canada, according to the “Public Library Data Service Statistical Report 2010” . PLDS libraries on average circulated items 1,548,590 times, performed 216,872 reference transactions, provided programs to 47,694 patrons, and provided 16,656 materials to other libraries, while receiving 16,875 materials from other libraries annually.

Table 1: PLDS 2010 Library Output Characteristics per $1,000 of Expenditures

Library Output No. of libraries Minimum Maximum Average

Library visits

889 .55 2233.4 168.21


941 23.26 1,717.3 254.41

Program attendance

906 .17 109.82 10.53

Reference transactions

871 .02 1433.6 26.89

In-library use of materials

377 .30 557.93 49.05

Library registrations

841 .17 286.77 18.52

Source: Public Library Data Service Statistical Report 2010

Library registrations as a percent of population increased as the population size decreased, going from 51.2 percent (population 1,000,000 or more) to 88.14 percent (population Less than5,000). Average holdings per capita show an even more dramatic shift with population served: Libraries serving populations less than 5,000 had average holdings about 4.9 times greater per capita than those of the largest libraries. Generally, as the populations served grew, the average holdings per capita decreased. Similarly, though not as skewed, library visits per capita also showed a larger value for libraries serving smaller populations.

Average circulation per capita, although showing the smallest value for the largest population group, showed a mostly linear pattern by population groupings. The average circulation per capita for all libraries reporting was 10.50. Of libraries reporting counts, print items were circulated 1,050,518 times on average and CD/DVD items were circulated 522,552 times on average.

Averaged over all respondents, library income was $48.01 while library expenditures were $45.31 per capita within the legal service area. Libraries that serve 25,000-49,999 people had the highest income per capita ($55.28), whereas libraries that served 1,000,000 or more people had the lowest ($35.66). The same population groups also represented highest and lowest expenditures per capita ($52.60 and $35.06, respectively).

Expenditures are expected to yield results, and the Public Library Data Service Report 2010 looked at various library “outputs” in this light (see Table 1, above). Compared with 2009 data, most numbers were up slightly on average.

The “Public Library Data Service Statistical Report 2010” is available as a digital database at the ALA Store.

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No-librarian libraries: An idea whose time has (not) come

Is the no-librarian “express” branch the library of the future?

The Wall Street Journal ran an article in October 2010 about the establishment by the Washington County (Minn.) Library of a self-service kiosk, locker system, and book return in the city of Hugo, a suburb of St. Paul, at which patrons can order, pick up and return library materials. Physically, the Hugo Library Express “branch” is a stack of metal lockers outside city hall where patrons can pick up the book or DVD they ordered on line from a digitally locked, glove compartment–sized receptacle.

To hear the Journal tell it, this and a similar facility planned for Mesa, Ariz., constitute nothing less than a “wave of innovation.” (The article does note that Evanced Solutions, an Indianapolis company that makes library software, has started test trials of a new vending machine, and that Public Information Kiosk Inc., a company in Germantown, M.D., that sells kiosks and vending machines to libraries, has had 25 orders for a book- and DVD–dispensing machine that the company introduced in 2009.)

Some library directors, such as James Lund, of the Red Wing (Minn.) Public Library, found the Journal article misleading and worrisome.

“The basis of the vending machine is to reduce the library to a public-book locker,” Lund said in an interview with Library Journal. “Our real mission is public education, and public education can’t be done from a vending machine. It takes educators, it takes people, it takes interaction.”

And while the Wall Street Journal article was more balanced than the headline (“New Library Technologies Dispense with Librarians”) and actually stressed the role and value of librarians, ALA President Roberta Stevens responded with a letter to the editor that said, in part, that “a community may save money taking this approach, but in the long run, it will find itself at a significant educational and economic disadvantage.

“Good decisions depend on good information. Machines can never replace the expertise of library staff. . . . Libraries and their staffs don’t just provide free access to books. They are part of the solution when a community is struggling economically. Across the nation, libraries continue to design and offer programs customized for their local community’s needs, providing residents with guidance (including sessions with career advisers), workshops in résumé writing and interviewing, job-search resources, and connections with outside agencies that offer training and job placement.

“In a time of intense economic insecurity, Stevens said, “U.S. public libraries are our first responders. We need them. Americans everywhere can’t close the books on libraries.”

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Outsourcing of library services seen as another bad idea

ALA President Roberta Stevens also reacted forcefully to statements by Frank Pezzanite, the chief executive of Library Systems & Services, who pledged to save $1 million a year as his firm takes over operation of the library system in Santa Clarita, Calif., mainly by cutting overhead and replacing unionized employees.

“There’s this American flag, apple pie thing about libraries,” Pezzanite said. “Somehow they have been put in the category of a sacred organization.” His company runs 14 library systems operating 63 locations. Its basic pitch to cities is that it fixes broken libraries — more often than not by firing all existing staff.

“A lot of libraries are atrocious,” Pezzanite told the New York Times on Sept. 26, 2010. “Their policies are all about job security. That’s why the profession is nervous about us. You can go to a library for 35 years and never have to do anything and then have your retirement. We’re not running our company that way. You come to us, you’re going to have to work.”

Stevens took sharp exception in a letter to the editor of the Times.

“The American Library Association opposes shifting policy-making and management oversight of library services from the public to the private sector, not because of its impact on job security, but rather because communities may lose access to trained information professionals — librarians,” she said in a statement.

“Implying that library staffs are just waiting around to cash in on retirement, when in fact there are thousands of librarians serving 1.5 billion visitors a year with dedication, assumes that people will fall for the ‘demonization’ of the public sector.

“Libraries and their employees, who are often paid salaries far below the demands placed on them and the education required for their positions, serve as a lifeline for millions of Americans. From free access to books and online resources to library business centers that help support entrepreneurship and retraining, libraries with top-notch staff are needed now more than ever in our increasingly competitive global economy.”

Stevens affirmed the ALA’s position that “publicly funded libraries should remain directly accountable to the publics they serve.”



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