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Increasing number of Americans turn to their library for reading and resources

Sixty-five percent of the respondents in a Harris Interactive nationwide poll conducted in January 2010 said they had used their public library either in person or by telephone or computer in the past year. That represents an astonishing 151.4 million Americans.

Sixty-eight percent of the employed adults surveyed reported using their library in 2009, as did 62 percent of the unemployed adults and 53 percent of the retired adults. Eighty percent of people 18-24 years old, 73 percent of those 35-44, and 70 percent of those 25-34 years old used their library in the past year. Thirty percent of the households surveyed, representing about 45.4 million adults, reported increased use of their library in the second half of the year.

The ALA participated in the survey, the Harris Poll National Quorum, a wide-ranging telephone survey that posed 18 library-related questions to 1,025 people age 18 and older.

Library use was highest among young adults: 80 percent of respondents 18-24 years old reported using their library in 2009. Also among the top library users were 35-44-year-olds (73 percent) and 25-34–year-olds (70 percent).

Forty-three percent of respondents 18-24 years old and 32 percent of those ages 35-44 increased their use of the public library in the second half of 2009. Furthermore, 34 percent of those who were employed and 24 percent of the unemployed reported increasing overall use of the public library, according to the survey.

Among those who visited the library by computer, 35 percent reported increasing their public library access by computer over the past six months.

(However, funding for public libraries did not keep pace with increasing use—see “Financial trends, fiscal 2008 to fiscal 2009,” below.)


Almost everyone sees libraries as a plus for individuals, communities

Asked how they feel about the services their library provides, 96 percent of respondents (representing almost 224 million people) agreed that because it provides free access to materials and resources, the public library plays an important role in giving everyone a chance to succeed, and 94 percent agreed that the library improves the quality of life in their community.

When asked about services used at the public library in the past year, 77 percent of households reported taking out books (e-book, paper book, or book on tape) as the number one use. Second was consulting a librarian (67 percent), followed by connecting to the Internet (41 percent) and checking email (25 percent). Twenty-five percent of households reported using library computers to check email. (Anecdotal evidence indicates that many families use library computers to stay in email contact with soldiers oversees.)

Among those who reported using the public library by phone or computer in the past year, 60 percent said they renewed library materials on line or by telephone, up sharply from 41 percent in 2006, when the ALA last asked households this question. Checking the library catalog on line or by phone was reported by 57 percent of households that reported “visiting” the public library by phone or computer, up from 45 percent in 2006; 42 percent used the library Web page, up from 32 percent in 2006.

When asked what they most used the public library for over the last year:

  • Forty-one percent of respondents, representing more than 62 million Americans, cited education (homework or to take a class) as the number one purpose.
  • Seventeen percent of respondents (representing about 26 million Americans) visited their public library to use a computer, and 11 percent (representing almost 17 million people) to write a paper or prepare a résumé.
  • Eleven percent (representing almost 16 million Americans) visited the library to conduct a job search or write a résumé.

Other top uses included entertainment (35 percent) and to obtain national or local news or information (11 percent).

Respondents in the West (27 percent) were more likely to have used library computers to write a paper or prepare a résumé than those in the Northeast (seven percent) or the South (15 percent); but library users in the South (50 percent) and the Northeast (48 percent) were much more likely to have visited the library for educational purposed than library users in the West (37 percent) or Midwest (28 percent).

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Making the case for including dedicated young-adult librarians on staff

The Young Adult Library Services Association, in a white paper issued in January 2009, made a strong case that every public and secondary school library should have a young-adult librarian on staff. Among the key conclusions:

  • Adolescents comprise a significant proportion of the American population, and many of them are library users. There are more than 30 million teenagers in the United States, and according to a 2007 survey of young people conducted by a Harris Poll for YALSA, 78 percent of teen respondents have library cards. Participation in library programs by youth under age 18 has been rising steadily, and three-quarters of Americans believe it is a high priority for public libraries to offer a safe place where teenagers can study and congregate.
  • Generalist library staff cannot serve the teen population as well as specially trained young-adult librarians, who understand that teens have unique needs and who have been trained especially to work with them. As books like Barbara Strauch’s The Primal Teen: What New Discoveries about the Teenage Brain Tell Us about Our Kids have shown. teens’ brains and bodies are different from a child’s or an adult’s. As a result, their behavior, interests and informational and social needs are not the same as those of children or adults.
  • Dedicated library services for teens improve the library as a whole. Armed with knowledge and understanding of adolescent behavior, interests and needs, young-adult librarians create programming and build collections appropriate to the concerns of young adults and develop services based on knowledge of adolescent development. There are benefits for the other library staff as well: Young-adult librarians build relationships with teens and help other staff break down prejudice in relation to teens and feel comfortable with them. 

YALSA also continues to take specific steps toward improving library service to young adults. For example, it updated its social networking toolkit (“Teens and Social Networking in School and Public Libraries: A Toolkit for Librarians & Library Workers”) in June 2009, including new information on how online social networking facilitates learning in schools and libraries, tips for speaking to legislators about social networking, and educating the community (especially parents and administrators) and teens about social networking.

And thousands of school and public libraries nationwide joined YALSA in celebrating the annual Teen Tech Week in March 2009, encouraging teens to take advantage of the many technologies available to them at their libraries.. More than 1,700 libraries embraced the 2009 theme, Press Play @ your library, by hosting an array of events and programs that encouraged teens to get connected with gaming, video, and music at the library.


Kids get in on the library action, too

Eighty-six percent of households with school-age children reported that checking out books, movies, and music free was the most important reason they took their children to the library, while 61 percent reported that going to the library gave them something to do together and 45 percent said they went to the library for its “great programs and services.”

When asked what their children did at the library, 86 percent reported checking out books, 73 percent reading for fun, 46 percent checking out movies, 43 percent doing research for school or to get homework help, and 41 percent said to attend Story Hour or other kids’ programs.

When asked which two programs and services they would most like their public library to offer for children, most adults found it difficult to choose only two. In fact, most felt all of the following were important:

  • Summer reading programs (35 percent).
  • Homework help (34 percent).
  • After-school activities (32 percent).
  • Story Hour (28 percent).
  • Computer classes (23 percent).
  • Teen programs (14 percent).

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Latest findings show acceleration in a decade-long trend

The data from the 2010 Harris Interactive poll are powerful evidence for what has already been recognized as a decade-long trend in library use, for public libraries have seen a steady increase in use over the past 10 years, with patrons accessing “an incredible range of information resources and programs across the country,” according to the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) Public Libraries Survey report for fiscal 2007, issued in June 2009. Not surprisingly, news reports suggested that public library use was even more pronounced in the first half of 2009 because of the recession, the IMLS said in a press release.

This long-standing annual survey reports information on population of service areas, service outlets, library collections and services, library staff, operating revenue and expenditures, and—for the first time—trend data (7-10 years) with graphs and maps on selected items. The IMLS collected data from more than 9,000 libraries in the 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories (Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands), with a response rate of 97.6 percent.

The growth in per capita circulation from fiscal 2006 to fiscal 2007 was a continuation of the steady growth that has occurred since fiscal 2000, the IMLS said. Per capita circulation grew from 6.4 materials per person to 7.4 materials per person from fiscal 2000 to fiscal 2007, an increase of 16 percent.

Nationwide, visits to public libraries totaled 1.4 billion, or 4.9 library visits per capita, a slight increase from fiscal 2006 but still a continuation of a larger, longer upward trend. Per capita visitation increased from 4.2 to 4.9 from fiscal 1998 to fiscal 2007, an overall increase of 17 percent.

In fiscal 2007, total nationwide circulation of public-library materials was 2.2 billion, or 7.4 materials circulated per capita; these were slight increases from fiscal 2006. Internet terminals available for public use in public libraries nationwide numbered 208,000, or 3.6 per 5,000 people, up from 196,000 terminals and 3.4 terminals per 5,000 people the previous year.

Nationwide circulation of children’s materials was 739.7 million, or 34 percent of total circulation during fiscal 2007. Attendance at children’s programs was 59.0 million in fiscal 2007, up from 57.6 million the prior year.

The fiscal 2007 survey is the 20th in the series and the second since responsibility for the survey was transferred to the IMLS from the National Center for Education Statistics. The U.S. Census Bureau collects the data under a contract with IMLS.

The findings of both the ALA and the IMLS surveys were essentially reinforced by an IMLS research brief issued in December, “Service Trends in U.S. Public Libraries, 1997-2007.” The brief identifies changes public libraries have made to address patron needs in an increasingly Internet-centric environment and explores service differences in urban and rural communities. Some of its key findings:

  • The availability of Internet terminals in public libraries increased by 90 percent on a per capita basis from 2000 to 2007.
  • From 1997 to 2007, per capita visits to public libraries increased nationwide by 19 percent, and per capita circulation increased by 12 percent, even as people increasingly turned to the Internet to meet other information needs.
  • Very different trajectories were identified for urban and rural communities for select service trends, highlighting the importance of local context for identifying patron needs and improving services.


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Financial trends, fiscal 2008 to fiscal 2009

As part of the Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study (PLFTAS), published as Libraries Connect Communities 3 (, public libraries are asked about the stability of the public library operating budget from year to year. The predominant response has been “no change,” but fiscal 2009 was different.

Across the board, public libraries that managed to get “a raise” in fiscal 2009 reported that it was smaller than in fiscal 2008, and those that received less funding took a larger hit than in the previous year. Also, the proportion of public libraries that received level funding from fiscal 2008 to fiscal 2009 increased. (Table 1, below)

The budget picture is further complicated by the fact that salaries, health care costs, and utility costs are increasing faster than inflation

Table 1: Overall Public Library System Operating Budget Stability, Fiscal 2008 and 2009

Operating budget . . .

Fiscal 2008

Fiscal 2009

Year-to-year change

Increased more than 6%

12.50% of libraries

9.40% of libraries

25% fewer

Increased 4.1-6%



1% fewer

Increased 2.1-4%



8% fewer

Increased up to 2%



8% fewer

Stayed the same



13% more

Decreased up to 2%



25% more

Decreased 2.1-4%



77% more

Decreased 4.1-6%



57% more

Decreased more than 6%



54% more

Source: Compiled from Figures C38-C39, Libraries Connect Communities 3 (2009).

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When the data are viewed by poverty ranges, the increase in the number of high-poverty libraries reporting decreases in operating budgets in fiscal 2009 is significant—twice as many libraries as in fiscal 2008, in some cases. Fewer libraries reported increases in almost every metropolitan status category and poverty level—the most striking example being the 15.8 percent decline in budget increases of more than 6 percent reported by libraries in high-poverty areas. (Table 2)

Table 2: Average percentage change in public library system operating budgets from fiscal 2008 to fiscal 2009, by poverty level of population served.

Library Operating budget . . .

Low Poverty

Medium Poverty

High Poverty


Increased more than 6%

3.0% fewer

4.1% fewer

15.8% fewer

3.1% fewer

Increased 4.1-6%

0.5% fewer

2.6% more

0.4% more

0.1% fewer

Increased 2.1-4%

2.3% fewer

4.4% fewer

4.2% more

2.4% fewer

Increased up to 2%

2.0% fewer

1.5% fewer

4.3% fewer

2.0% fewer

Stayed the same

3.5% more

1.0% fewer

0.7% more

3.0% more

Decreased up to 2%

0.5% more

3.2% more

7.0% more

0.9% more

Decreased 2.1-4%

1.8% more

1.3% more

no data

1.7% more

Decreased 4.1-6%

0.8% more

1.1% more

3.6% more

0.8% more

Decreased more than 6%

1.0% more

3.0% more

 no data

1.3% more

Source: Compiled from Figures C38-C39, Libraries Connect Communities 3 (2009).


Table 3 provides data concerning operating expenditures at the close of fiscal 2008 and fiscal 2009. Among funding sources, the most significant year-to-year variations were in donations/local fund raising and private foundation grants; the 43 percent increase in use of foundation grants for staff salaries/benefits reported by public libraries is particularly striking. One should note that the total operating expenditure amounts from donations/local fund raising are modest compared with tax-derived revenue and that those dollars are probably compensating for the loss in local and state revenue. Also, private foundation grants are typically restricted to specific uses and are of limited duration.

Table 3: Fiscal 2008 and fiscal 2009 public library systems average total operating expenditures, by type and funding source.

Sources of Funding

Salaries (including benefits)


Other Expenditures


FY 08: $1,019,810
FY 09: $1,017,687

FY 08: $206,036
FY 09: $205,012

FY 08: $387,445
FY 09: $383,614

State (incl. state aid to public libraries, or state-supported tax programs)

FY 08: $139,391
FY 09: $131,707

FY 08: $56,476
FY 09: $58,551

FY 08: $60,297
FY 09: $59,674


FY 08: $10,318
FY 09: $14,926

FY 08: $6,746
FY 09: $8,142

FY 08: $20,686
FY 09: $24,088


FY 08: $28,028
FY 09: $29,059

FY 08: $19,598
FY 09: $20,277

FY 08: $39,573
FY 09: $37,922

Donations/local fundraising

FY 08: $165,614
FY 09: $196,880

FY 08: $28,397
FY 09: $32,923

FY 08: $67,111
FY 09: $72,264

Government grants (local, state or national level)

FY 08: $65,760
FY 09: $67,370

FY 08: $13,464
FY 09: $12,810

FY 08: $28,692
FY 09: $28,425

National level


Private foundation grants

FY 08: $253,864
FY 09: $363,068

FY 08: $38,497
FY 09: $42,610

FY 08: $36,211
FY 09: $35,582

Reported average total

FY 08: $1,682,785
FY 09: $1,805,771

FY 08: $369,214
FY 09: $380,325

FY 08: $640,015
FY 09: $641,569

Reported average percent

FY 08: 62.5%
FY 09: 63.9%

FY 08: 13.7%
FY 09: 13.5%

FY 08: 23.8%
FY 09: 22.7%


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Public libraries and e-government services

A report issued in June reaffirmed a trend that had become apparent in recent years and was highlighted in 2009—that public-library technology supports public access and use of e-government information and resources.

“U.S. Public Libraries and E-Government Services,” an issues brief prepared by the ALA Office for Research & Statistics (ORS) and the Center for Library and Information Innovation at the University of Maryland, describes the increased use of online government information and services, the role of public libraries in helping provide access and assistance using these resources, and the challenges that must be addressed to improve e-government at the local, state, and federal levels. The report, the fourth in a series on technology access in U.S. public libraries, draws from national data published in the Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study.

Among the findings:

  • 71 percent of libraries report that they are the only source of free access to computers and the Internet in their community.
  • 80 percent of libraries report providing as-needed assistance with e-government services.
  • 61 percent of libraries report that providing access to government information is one of the most critical Internet services they provide.
  • Public libraries offer training classes and/or as-needed assistance on a range of topics, particularly Internet use (93 percent), general computer skills (91 percent) and online Web searching (77 percent).

“Public libraries often are the only organizations within a community that can help individuals interact with government agencies and access e-government services,” ALA Executive Director Keith Michael Fiels said in an ALA press release in June 2009. “As more and more government information and services are becoming only available on line, there is an urgent need for governments to collaborate with public libraries to provide e-government services that best meet community needs.”

The technology access reports share findings from the largest and longest-running (since 1994) study of Internet connectivity in libraries, “The Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study,” funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the ALA. “U.S. Public Libraries and E-Government Services” was jointly authored by John Carlo Bertot, Shannon N. Simmons and Dawn Borgardt at the University of Maryland Center for Library & Information Innovation; Jessica McGilvray in the ALA Office of Government Relations; and Larra Clark in the ALA’s ORS.

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