Public Library Use
ALA Library Fact Sheet 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 ALA Library 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.
Most Recent Resources on Library Use, Services, and Perception
The 2014 State of America's Libraries: A Report from the American Library Association was released, as usual, during National Library Week. You can also access the 2014 State of America's Libraries Zmags digital American Libraries magazine supplement version. As detailed in our April 14, 2014 news item, ALA releases 2014 State of America's Libraries Report: Libraries continue to transform to meet society’s needs, but school libraries feel the pain of tight budgets. Key trends detailed in the 2014 State of America's Libraries Report:
- Ninety-six percent of the Americans responding to the Pew survey agreed that public libraries are important because they provide tech resources and access to materials, and the same number found libraries valuable because they promote literacy and a love of reading.
- More than 90 percent of traditional public schools have a school library, but public schools continue to struggle with the impact of funding cuts. For public school libraries, that means that professional staffing has been targeted for cuts nationwide.
- Libraries witnessed a number of developments in 2013 in the area of ebooks and copyright issues. Ebooks continue to make gains among reading Americans, according to another Pew survey, but few readers have completely replaced print with digital editions — and the advent of digital reading brings with it a continuing tangle of legal issues involving publishers and libraries.
- More and more public libraries are turning to the use of web technologies, including websites, online account access, blogs, rich site summary (RSS) feeds, catalog search boxes, sharing interfaces, Facebook and Twitter.
- The economic downturn is continuing at most institutions of higher learning, and academic librarians are working to transform programs and services by re-purposing space and redeploying staff in the digital resources environment.
- President Obama signed a $1.1 trillion spending bill in January that will fund the federal government through September and partially restore funding to the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) — the primary source of annual funding for libraries in the federal budget — that were dramatically cut in the 2013 fiscal year under sequestration.
Findings of the 2013 State of America's Libraries: A Report from the American Library Association appear in our April 16, 2013 news item, 2013 State of America's Libraries Report: Libraries play a responsive role as budgets are cut, book challenges increase, ebooks present new challenges. Also access the 2013 State of America's Libraries Zmags digital American Libraries magazine supplement version.
Findings of the 2012 State of America's Libraries: A Report from the American Library Association appear in our April 9, 2012 news item, 2012 State of America's Library Report shows free access to information in jeopardy. Also access the 2012 State of America's Libraries Zmags digital American Libraries magazine supplement version.
Findings of the 2011 State of America's Libraries: A Report from the American Library Association appear in our April 11, 2011 news item, Job-seekers, entrepreneurs continue to turn to their local library for help: State of America's Libraries Report 2011. Also access the first-ever 2011 State of America's Libraries Zmags digital American Libraries magazine supplement version.
Findings of the 2010 State of America's Libraries: A Report from the American Library Association appear in our April 12, 2010 news item, Recession drives more Americans to libraries in search of employment resources; but funding lags demand.
Findings of the 2009 State of America's Libraries: A Report from the American Library Association (available via the Internet Archive) appear in our April 13, 2009 news item, New report shows libraries critical in times of crisis, but funding lags and services reduced.
Findings of the 2008 State of America's Libraries: A Report from the American Library Association (available via the Internet Archive) appear in our April 14, 2008 news item, Libraries play a key role in learning and development: Public libraries are engines of economic growth, studies show.
Findings of the 2007 State of America's Libraries: A Report from the American Library Association appear in our April 16, 2007 news item, New data on U.S. libraries shows almost two billion served: Predicted demise due to Internet fails to materialize.
Findings of the 2006 State of America's Libraries: A Report from the American Library Association were reported in our April 4, 2006 news item, New State of America's Libraries report documents positive, expanding role of libraries.
Pew Internet Libraries reports included the 2014 From Distant Admirers to Library Lovers–and Beyond: A typology of public library engagement in America (March 13, 2014), while 2013 ended with the release of the report noted in the 2014 State of America's Libraries above, How Americans Value Public Libraries in Their Communities (December 11, 2013).
The accompanying project blog, Libraries in the Digital Age, which began in 2012, is updated and maintained by the staff of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, one of seven projects that make up the Pew Research Center, which has routinely studied the relationship between libraries and online information gathering for the last several years, reporting their findings in publications since 2007, supplemented with presentations since 2009. The Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan "fact tank" that provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. It does so by conducting public opinion polling and social science research; by reporting news and analyzing news coverage; and by holding forums and briefings. It does not take positions on policy issues.
The most current federal statistics report on public libraries, Public Libraries in the United States Survey: Fiscal Year 2011 (2014), was released in a mostly completed preview version in March of 2014. The Public Library Survey (PLS) reports are presently conducted by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and give the most recent usage statistics as reported by libraries, in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Explained in the press release March 12, 2014, Preview of FY 2011 Public Libraries Survey Available:
- In FY 2011, there were 8,956 public libraries in the United States, which served 299.9 million people or 95.3 percent of the U.S. population.
- There were 1.53 billion in-person visits to public libraries, the equivalent to more than 4.2 million visits each day (not including virtual visits).
- Attendance at public library programs increased for the eighth year with 89 million people attending 3.81 million programs.
- Public libraries circulated 2.44 billion materials, or 8.1 items circulated per person.
- While books continue to comprise the majority of the nation's public library collection holdings, collections are shifting from print books to non-print and digital materials.
- There were 261,413 public access Internet computers available at U.S. public libraries.
- There were 341.5 million usage sessions on public access Internet computers at public libraries.
- More than $11.4 billion was invested in public libraries.
- Public libraries spent $10.7 billion in operating expenditures.
The Supplemental Tables (formerly formed the bulk of the reports; now separated out and labeled "supplemental") of the survey's 8,956 respondent libraries reported in Tables 8 and 10 (PDF):
|Total visits to libraries||
|5.1 visits per capita|
|Total library circulation||
|8.1 items per capita|
|Circulation of children's materials||
|34.5% of total circulation|
As mentioned above, the most current federal statistics report on public libraries, Public Libraries in the United States Survey: Fiscal Year 2011 (2014), was released in a mostly completed preview version in March of 2014, and these reports are presently conducted by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and give the most recent usage statistics as reported by libraries, with numbers from each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia.
There were 171,121,000 registered borrowers, according to Table 8. Number of public library services and library services per capita, by type of service and state: Fiscal year 2011, on pages 1-2 of this 30-page PDF of the Supplemental Tables (formerly formed the bulk of the reports; now separated out and labeled "supplemental") of the Public Libraries in the United States Survey: Fiscal Year 2011.
The newest report in this series, Libraries Connect Communities: Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study, 2011-2012, released, as usual, in late June, just prior to the ALA Annual Conference, assesses public access to computers, the Internet, and Internet-related services in U.S. public libraries, and the impact of library funding changes on connectivity, technology deployment, and sustainability. A project overview of the study is available online at the <http://www.ala.org/plinternetfunding> shortcut address. The study builds on the longest-running and largest study of Internet connectivity in public libraries, Public Libraries & the Internet, begun in 1994 by John Carlo Bertot and Charles R. McClure. The report provides information that can help library directors and library IT staff benchmark and advocate for technology resources in communities across the nation. The data are also of importance for policymakers at local, state, and federal levels, manufacturers of information and communication technologies, and the communities served by public libraries. ALA's Office for Research and Statistics maintains the pages with previous studies about public libraries with their Internet, with each year's previous press materials and previous issues briefs.
Access the full Libraries Connect Communities 2011-2012 Press Kit and additional press materials for 2012, along with More Survey Findings from the Information Policy & Access Center and Online Extras - Maps, State Summaries including the E-books Map, U.S. Public Libraries 2012. See the Infographic: U.S. Public Libraries Weather the Storm and additional graphics from 2011-2012 study. Also see this year's Issues Briefs and Data in Action!
This latest report's findings were summarized in our June 21, 2012 news item, U.S. libraries strive to provide innovative technology services despite budget cuts, stating that more Americans than ever turn to their libraries for access to essential technology services, which underscores the competing concerns that face America's libraries: cumulative budget cuts that threaten access to libraries and services, increasing demand for technology training and the chronic presence of the digital divide. Reflecting stubborn unemployment statistics, for the third consecutive year, libraries report services for job seekers as the most important public Internet service. More than 92 percent of libraries nationwide provide access to job databases and other job resources, while 76 percent help users complete online job applications. Increasingly, as government agencies eliminate print forms and close satellite offices, communities turn to their public libraries for access to e-government resources, and assistance with requests such as filling out forms for Social Security and Medicare, filing court petitions and downloading W-2 forms. More than 96 percent of libraries report providing assistance with e-government services, an increase of nearly 16 percent from last year.
Additional key findings on the state of Internet availability in public libraries include:
- 62% of libraries report that they are the only provider of free computer and Internet access in their community
- 91% of public libraries provide free Wi-Fi, and 74% of libraries report use of Wi-Fi increased in 2011; 57% of urban libraries offer broadband speeds greater than 10 Mbps, as compared to 17% of rural libraries
- 76% of libraries offer access to e-books, and 39% of libraries provide e-readers for check-out by patrons; e-books are available from 92% of urban libraries, compared to 65% of rural libraries
- 15% of library websites are optimized for mobile devices, and 12% of libraries use scanned codes (e.g. QR codes), and 7% of libraries have developed smartphone apps for access to library services; 36% of urban libraries have websites optimized for mobile devices, compared to 9% of rural libraries
- 65% of libraries report having an insufficient number of public computers to meet demand, this increases to 87% in urban libraries
- 50% of libraries report insufficient staff to meet patron job-seeking needs
- 57% of libraries report flat or decreased operating budgets in FY2011, up from 40% in FY2009
- For the third year in a row, 40% of state libraries report decreased state funding for public libraries.
- 90% of libraries offer formal or informal technology assistance to library users, and 35% offer one-on-one technology training by appointment
- 36% of libraries report increased use of library technology training over the previous year; technology training classes are provided by 63% of urban libraries, compared to 32% of rural libraries
- 70% of libraries use social networking tools such as Facebook
Findings of the Libraries Connect Communities: Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study 2010-2011 were summarized in our June 21, 2011 news item, New library study: demand up for technology, budget cuts limit access, stating that U.S. public libraries continue to expand as technology centers for communities, providing essential resources for job-seekers and support for critical e-government services. Not surprisingly, libraries report again that services for job-seekers rate as the most important public Internet service provided to the community. Yet, 56 percent of libraries report they do not have enough staff to effectively assist job-seekers. In addition, as the demand for e-books increases, libraries are the starting place for free downloads. However, budget cuts have forced libraries across the country to scale back drastically on operating hours and access to services, just when resources are most needed. While 70 percent of libraries report increased use of public computers, and more than half of libraries report an increase in use of electronic resources, 55 percent of urban libraries report operating budget decreases during the current fiscal year, followed by suburban (36 percent) and rural (26 percent) libraries. At the same time, 16 percent of libraries report decreased operating hours, a jump from 4.5 percent just two years ago. For the third year, the greatest impact was experienced by those living in urban communities; nearly 32 percent of urban libraries report reduction of open hours, up from 23.7 percent last year. Access the full Libraries Connect Communities 2010-2011 Press Kit.
Findings of the Libraries Connect Communities: Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study 2009–2010 were summarized in our June 21, 2010 news item, Libraries report increased use of e-government, job resources; reduced operating hours, stating that libraries across the country have reported an increase in public use of online services, particularly to support e-government and job seeking transactions, and have made some gains in adding public computers and improving Internet connections available to patrons. However, snowballing funding cuts at state and local levels are forcing thousands of libraries to literally lock away access to these resources as they reduce operating hours. From unemployment benefits to state tax forms, more government information and services are moving online, often without a print alternative. Responding to growing demand from people for assistance using these new forms of government services, nearly 79 percent of libraries (up from 54 percent one year ago) provide assistance to patrons applying or accessing government services. Eighty-eight percent of libraries provide free access to job databases and other job services, and 67 percent report library staff helped patrons complete online job applications. Libraries also provide access to civil service exam materials (75 percent) and software to help patrons create resumes and other employment materials (69 percent). Nationally, 62% of unemployed people used their public library last year. Nearly 15 percent of libraries (or roughly 2,400 locations) report reduced operating hours, with urban libraries leading the trend with nearly one-quarter reporting fewer hours in 2009. More than half (55 percent) of urban libraries report funding cuts between FY2009 and FY2010. Access the Libraries Connect Communities 2009-2010 Press Kit.
Findings of the Libraries Connect Communities: Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study 2008–2009 appear in the September 15, 2009 news item, In down economy, libraries are on frontline of connecting Americans with online government, job resources: Sustained funding, broadband improvements needed to meet increased demand. Access the 2008-2009 Public Library Funding and Technology Access Study Press Kit, which introduced a modernized take on the National Library Symbol by Illinois graphic designer Brian Benson.
Findings of the Libraries Connect Communities: Public Library Funding and Technology Access Study 2007-2008 appear in the September 2, 2008 news item, Public libraries report double-digit growth in Internet services in one year: Availability of online homework help, e-books, premium Web content jump.
Findings of the Libraries Connect Communities: Public Library Funding and Technology Access Study 2006-2007 appear in our September 12, 2007 news item, Public libraries are sole source of online employment and education information for millions of Americans: Internet use at public libraries flourishes but technical, financial support lags. Also see the May 29, 2007 news item, ALA presents preliminary results from Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study.
The newest numbers sourced from households come from a January 2011 Harris Interactive Poll (PDF). As noted in the Methodology section of the ALA January 2011 Harris Poll Quorum Results, for this poll created for the American Library Association and presented by Harris Interactive: "This Harris Poll National Quorum was conducted by telephone within the United States between January 19 and 23, 2011 among 1,012 adults aged 18 or older. Results were weighted for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region, number of adults, and number of voice/telephone lines in the household where necessary to align them with their actual proportions in the population." As previously noted, the Great Recession may have come to an end, but hard-pressed Americans continue to turn to their local libraries for help in finding a job or launching their own business:
- Sixty-five percent of those polled said they had visited the library in the past year; women are significantly more likely than men (72 percent vs. 58 percent) to fall into this category, especially working women, working mothers and women aged 18-54.
- Overall, 58 percent of those surveyed said they had a library card, and the largest group was, again, women, especially working women and working mothers. College graduates and those with a household income of more than $100,000 were also well represented among card holders, according to the survey.
- Thirty-one percent of adults rank the library at the top of their list of tax-supported services.
Previous Household Surveys, conducted in conjunction with KRC Research and Harris Interactive, for the years 2002 and then 2006 through 2010, on public library usage and attitudes, can be found at ALA's Research & Statistics: Public Libraries.
Federal public library usage statistics from households were last collected in the October 2002 Current Population Survey Library Supplement, in Households Use of Public and Other Types of Libraries: 2002, which was released in January 2007 via the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). The survey was conducted October 13-19, 2002. The Current Population Survey (CPS) is a monthly survey of households conducted by the Census Bureau for the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Data are collected from a sample of 50,000 to 60,000 households through personal and telephone interviews.
The Households Use of Public and Other Types of Libraries: 2002 found that:
- Among households with children under 18, a larger percentage of Black and Asian households (25 percent and 26 percent respectively) use a public library in the past month for a school assignment than did white or Hispanic households (22 percent and 20 percent respectively)
- A smaller proportion of white, non-Hispanic households (8 percent) than Black, non- Hispanic households (13 percent), Hispanic households (12 percent), Asian/Pacific Islander households (11 percent) or mixed households (12 percent) used a public library in the past month to use a computer or the Internet (table 22).
NOTE: This greater use of computers at public libraries by minorities than by whites may reflect the greater availability of computers in White and Asian households. A recent NCES study reported that "[Among American school children,] White and Asians are more likely to use computers at home than are Blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians." (DeBell, M., and Chapman, C. . Computer and Internet Use by Students in 2003 [NCES 2006-065]. U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.)
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/
|Used library in last month||
|Used library in last year||
Serving Non-English Speakers in U.S. Public Libraries: 2007 Analysis of Library Demographics, Services and Programs - Study provides new information about library services and programs developed for non-English speakers, including effectiveness of services, barriers to library use, most frequently used services and most success library programs by language served.
Youth/Children and Young Adults
Youth Use of Public and School Libraries (2007) - Conducted online by Harris Interactive within the United States between June 13 and 21, 2007, among 1,262 youth, aged 8 - 18, for the American Library Association; see the press release dated July 24, 2007, Youth and library use studies show gains in serving young adults, for details.
Just before the 2011 ALA Annual Conference came the June 17, 2011 press release out of the federal library agency, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), in Washington DC, U.S. IMPACT Study Second Report - Opportunity for All: How Library Policies and Practices Impact Public Internet Access:
Public libraries have become essential points of access to the Internet and computers in local communities, with nearly every library in the country offering public internet access. Yet, individual library practices can have significant affect on the quality and character of this public service. Opportunity for All: How Library Policies and Practices Impact Public Internet Access (PDF), offers an analysis of the service in four public library systems and makes recommendations for strategies that help to sustain and improve public access service. The report was funded through a partnership between the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Institute of Museum and Library Services and was produced by the University of Washington Information School.
Libraries play a vital role in providing services that are necessary in everyday life. The recommendations from this study provide a foundation to discuss the wide range of internal and external policy issues that affect the quality, efficiency and effectiveness of the types of library resources and environments most patrons encounter in U.S. public libraries.
"This study identifies important best practices that can help libraries improve patron experience and contribute to positive learning outcomes," said IMLS Director Susan Hildreth. "This report will be very useful for educating the public and provides actionable recommendations for policymakers and funders as they consider future efforts in this area."
This second report is a companion volume to the first report in the U.S. IMPACT Study, Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries.
In 2010, news stories nationwide pointed to the increased library use due to the recession - as a 2002 report from ALA pointed out it would:
Economic Hard Times and Public Library Use Revisited by Dr. Mary Jo Lynch (former Director of the Office for Research and Statistics), August 2002 American Libraries, pp. 62-63
Public Library Use and Economic Hard Times: Analysis of Recent Data (PDF): Report prepared for the American Library Association by The Library Research Center, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, April 18, 2002
However, a by-product of a troubled economy can be dangerous budget cuts that lessen library services to a community - leaving fewer staff and/or hours of operation - or that eliminate library services from the community altogether. And just when these services are needed most.
As reported in our January 12, 2010 news item announcing The Condition of Libraries: 1999-2009 (PDF) by ALA's Office for Research and Statistics, New ALA report details economic trends in libraries and 2010 outlook:
At every turn, news reports and research indicate fairly dramatic changes in U.S. library funding, services and staffing – most occurring in the last 18 months. According to a new report prepared by the American Library Association (ALA), libraries of all types are feeling the pinch of the economic downturn while managing sky-high use.
Prior to National Library Week in 2010 came the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation press release, dated March 25, 2010, First-Ever National Study: Millions of People Rely on Library Computers for Employment, Health, and Education, announcing:
Nearly one-third of Americans age 14 or older – roughly 77 million people – used a public library computer or wireless network to access the Internet in the past year, according to a national report released today. In 2009, as the nation struggled through a recession, people relied on library technology to find work, apply for college, secure government benefits, learn about critical medical treatments, and connect with their communities.
The report, Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries (PDF), is based on the first, large-scale study of who uses public computers and Internet access in public libraries, the ways library patrons use this free technology service, why they use it, and how it affects their lives. It was conducted by the University of Washington Information School and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
In September 2008, a Harris Poll from Harris Interactive (PDF) reported that 68 percent of Americans have a library card, while 76 percent of Americans visited their local library in the past year. In that same time period, 41 percent of Americans visited the web site of their local library. For full details, see our September 23, 2008 news item, New national poll shows library card registration reaches historic high: Three-quarters of library card holders visited their local libraries in past year.
Last updated: April 2014
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: email@example.com; or regular mail: ALA Library, American Library Association, 50 East Huron Street, Chicago, IL 60611-2795.