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.
The 2013 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 2013 State of America's Libraries Zmags digital American Libraries magazine supplement version. As detailed 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: Libraries and library staff continue to respond to the needs of their communities, providing key resources as budgets are reduced, speaking out forcefully against book-banning attempts and advocating for free access to digital content in libraries, with a keen focus placed on ebook formats. Key trends detailed in the 2013 State of America's Libraries Report:
- Libraries offer resources often unavailable elsewhere during an economic “recovery” that finds about 12 million Americans unemployed and millions more underemployed. Three-fourths of public libraries offer software and other resources to help patrons create résumés and employment materials, and library staff helps patrons complete online job applications.
- Libraries and publishers of ebooks have spent much of the past year seeking some middle ground that will allow greater library access to ebooks and still compensate publishers appropriately.
- Public and community college libraries are providing patrons with reliable financial information and investor education resources and programs, many of which target teens and young adults.
- The library community continues to rally support for school libraries, which seem destined to bear the brunt of federal budget sequestration.
- Academic librarians are helping students learn how to analyze information and apply it to new contexts, reflect on what they know, identify what they still need to learn and sort through contradictory arguments.
- Despite the anemic economy, library construction continued apace in 2012, concrete evidence that libraries still bring solid economic dividends to the communities they serve. The trend toward renovation, as opposed to new construction, was particularly striking.
- Changes in technology and social networking continue at a dizzying pace, and libraries maintain their role as technology leaders — not in being first adopters, but in being early users of effective technologies.
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.
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 most current federal statistics report on public libraries, Public Libraries in the United States Survey: Fiscal Year 2010 (2013), was published in January of 2013. 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 January 22, 2013, IMLS 2010 Public Library Survey Results Announced - Libraries doing more with less – Local government taking larger funding role:
Public libraries served 297.6 million people throughout the United States, a number that is equivalent to 96.4 percent of the total U.S. population, according to new research by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).
Nationally, public libraries have seen reductions in operating revenue, service hours, and staffing. Numbers for circulation, program attendance, and computer use continue to trend upward.
This is the first federal statistical report on public libraries to go beyond a national level analysis to report on trends at the local, regional, and state levels. The report identifies indicators in three areas: services and operations, resources, and workforce. To provide a more complete picture of library service in the U.S., the report provides a snapshot for each state, describing characteristics of library service.
Public libraries offered 3.75 million programs to the public in FY 2010, which amounts to an average of at least one program a day for every library system in the country. The majority of these programs (61.5%) are designed for children. Attendance at programs has continued to rise, indicating an increased demand for these services.
Public libraries circulated 2.46 billion materials in FY 2010, the highest circulation in 10 years, representing a continued increasing trend. Circulation of children’s materials has increased by 28.3 percent in the last 10 years and comprises over one-third of all materials circulated in public libraries.
The composition of public library collections has changed dramatically in recent years. While books in print continue to dominate the physical portion of the collection, making up 87.1 percent of the total in FY 2010, the share of non-print materials, including audio and video materials and electronic books, has increased. The number of e-books has tripled since FY 2003. In FY 2010, there were 18.50 million e-books available for circulation.
Public access computer use continued to be one of the fastest growing services in public libraries. In FY 2010, public libraries reported a computer use rate of more than one use for every five visits to the library. Public libraries have responded to demand by increasing access, doubling the number of public computers in the past 10 years.
Physical visits to libraries decreased 1.1 percent in 2010. (Note: the survey does not collect data on online visits or transactions of public libraries.) Physical visits remain strong with an overall 10-year increase of 32.7 percent from FY 2001-FY 2010. On average, Americans visited a public library 5.3 times per year, a ten-year increase of 21.7 percent.
Indicator 5. Circulation in Public Libraries is on pages 24-25 while Indicator 6. Change in Public Library Collections is on pages 26-27 of the 52-page PDF, Public Libraries in the United States Survey: Fiscal Year 2010.
The Supplemental Tables (formerly formed the bulk of the reports; now separated out and labeled "supplemental") of the survey's 8,951 respondent libraries reported in Tables 8 and 10 (PDF):
|Total visits to libraries||
|5.3 visits per capita|
|Total library circulation||
|8.3 items per capita|
|Circulation of children's materials||
|34.0% of total circulation|
As mentioned above, the most current federal statistics report on public libraries, Public Libraries in the United States Survey: Fiscal Year 2010 (2013), was published in January of 2013, 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. The National Picture overview on page 11 of the 52-page PDF, Public Libraries in the United States Survey: Fiscal Year 2010 reports:
There were 171.07 million people who were registered to borrow materials from public libraries in FY 2010. This is an increase of 1.0 percent from FY 2009 and an increase of 6.0 percent since FY 2006, the first year these data were recorded in the survey.A footnote explains: This number may include duplicative counting of people who are registered to borrow books in multiple systems. In systems with reciprocity, which allows for registered borrows in one public library system to borrow books in another system, a person would be registered only once.
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 2010 has Table 8. Number of public library services and library services per capita, by type of service and state: Fiscal year 2010 on pages 1-2 of this 27-page PDF.
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.
The 2012 Pew Internet Libraries reports included The rise of e-reading; Libraries, patrons, and e-books; and Mobile Connections to Libraries - and current 2013 reports include Library Services in the Digital Age. Technology is changing expectations about how to find and use information, particularly among younger generations, and libraries are changing along the way. The accompanying project blog, Libraries in the Digital Age, 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. 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.
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: June 2013
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.