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 2015 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 2015 State of America's Libraries digital American Libraries magazine supplement version. As detailed in our April 12, 2015 news item, New State of America’s Libraries Report finds shift in role of U.S. libraries. Key trends detailed in the 2015 State of America's Libraries Report:
- Academic, public and school libraries are experiencing a shift in how they are perceived by their communities and society. No longer just places for books, libraries of all types are viewed as anchors, centers for academic life and research and cherished spaces.
- From offering free technology workshops, small business centers and 24/7 virtual access to e-Books and digital materials, libraries are transforming communities, schools and campuses.
- The lack of diverse books for young readers continues to fuel concern. Over the past 12 months the library community has fostered conversations and fueled a groundswell toward activism to address the lack of diversity reflected in children’s literature—both in content and among writers and illustrators.
- A current analysis of book challenges recorded by ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) from 2001 – 2013, shows that attempts to remove books by authors of color and books with themes about issues concerning communities of color are disproportionately challenged and banned. A challenge is defined as a formal, written complaint filed with a library or school requesting that a book or other material be restricted or removed because of its content or appropriateness.
- Digital literacy continues to grow as an important library service. Research shows that families are increasing their access to digital media, but they lack the knowledge to use it effectively in a way that enables learning.
- Makerspaces are trending and provide evidence that libraries are continuing to evolve beyond the traditional focus on collections.
- Many federal government policy and regulatory issues are of importance to libraries and the people who use them. Policies related to personal privacy, library funding, workforce development, and copyright law are a few of the issues of interest to the library community.
Findings of the 2014 State of America's Libraries: A Report from the American Library Association appeared 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. Also access the 2014 State of America's Libraries Zmags digital American Libraries magazine supplement version.
Findings of the 2013 State of America's Libraries: A Report from the American Library Association appeared 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 appeared 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 appeared 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 appeared 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) appeared 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) appeared 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 appeared 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 released on September 15, 2015, Libraries at the Crossroads: The public is interested in new services and thinks libraries are important to communities. In the news item dated the same day, ALA president responds to Pew Research Center study that highlights vital role of libraries in digital age, Sari Feldman's statements included:
Libraries are not just about what we have for people, but what we do for and with people. Today's survey found that three-quarters of the public say libraries have been effective at helping people learn how to use new technologies. This is buttressed by the ALA's Digital Inclusion Survey, which finds that virtually all libraries provide free public access to computers and the Internet, wi-fi, technology training and robust digital content that supports education, employment, e-government access and more.
In 2014, Pew reports included 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 is Public Libraries in the United States Survey: Fiscal Year 2012 (December 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 January 26, 2015, IMLS 2012 Public Libraries Survey Report Issued and in the Public Libraries in the United States Survey FY 2012 Fast Facts (PDF):
- There were 1.5 billion in-person visits to public libraries across the United States, similar to FY 2011 levels. This was a 10-year increase of 20.7 percent.
- The public invested over $11.5 billion in revenue to public libraries. This was similar to FY 2011 levels, after adjusting for inflation. Revenue has declined after a peak in FY 2009, but is up 7.2 percent over 10 years.
- More than 92.6 million people attended the 4.0 million programs at public libraries. Attendance showed a 1-year increase of 5.2 percent and a 10-year increase of 54.4 percent.
- Over 2.2 billion materials were circulated in public libraries, similar to FY 2011, and a 10-year increase of 28.0 percent.
- There were 271,146 public access computers in public libraries, representing a 1-year increase of 3.7 percent.
- There were 340.5 million use sessions of public access computers. Although this has declined in recent years, this was similar to FY 2011 levels. This finding is discussed in light of the increase of personal digital devices, such as smartphones.
Culled from the National Level Data and Trends section of Public Libraries in the United States Survey: Fiscal Year 2012 (PDF):
- Having e-books as part of a public library’s collection was related to higher rates of both visitation and circulation.
- In addition to books, public libraries also include audio and video materials in their collections, in both physical and digital/downloadable formats.
- Public libraries are committed to providing opportunities for learning experiences that educate and inspire people throughout their lifetime. Programs vary from digital learning and job training for adults, maker spaces for young adults, and summer reading programs and story time for children.
- A core function of public libraries is to facilitate open access to information and ideas. In the 21st century, public libraries accomplish this by providing public access to computers and the Internet, serving as technology access points for communities.
The Supplemental Tables (formerly formed the bulk of the reports; now separated out and labeled "supplemental") of the survey's 9,082 respondent libraries reported in Table 8 (PDF):
|Total visits to libraries||
|4.9 visits per capita|
|Total library circulation||
|8.0 items per capita|
|Circulation of children's materials||
|35.2% of total circulation|
The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) announces the launch of data.imls.gov, its open data catalog site. This new resource puts IMLS data—comprising agency data such as grants administration and data about museums, libraries, and related organizations—at the fingertips of researchers, developers, and interested members of the public who want to dig deeper.
As mentioned above, the most current federal statistics report on public libraries is Public Libraries in the United States Survey: Fiscal Year 2012 (December 2014), conducted by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), which gives the most recent usage statistics as reported by libraries, with numbers from each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia.
There were 170,593,000 registered borrowers, according to Table 8. Number of public library services and library services per capita, by type of service and state: Fiscal year 2012, on pages 1-2 of this 33-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 2012.
Funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services and managed by the ALA Office for Research & Statistics and the Information Policy and Access Center at the University of Maryland, the Digital Inclusion Study provides national- and state-level data. The International City/County Management Association and ALA Office for Information Technology Policy are partners in the research effort.
For more information on the Digital Inclusion Survey -- including direct links to the report's Infographics; several issue briefs regarding public libraries and aspects of digital inclusion; the state-level data; and the interactive national map -- please visit www.ala.org/research/digitalinclusion.
See the press release dated October 14, 2015, New research highlights libraries' expanded roles, the announcement of the release of the 2014 Digital Inclusion Survey National Report, which caps two decades of research on public libraries and the internet (see Libraries Connect Communities: Public Library Funding and Technology Access Study (PLFTAS) below) and the expanded roles libraries are playing in their communities. The report's Executive Summary (PDF) states:
Over this time, we have seen libraries in a constant evolution in tandem with advances in technology. Just as libraries offered word processing software before personal computers were commonplace in homes and offered many people their first chance to try the Internet, public libraries now enable many patrons to explore e-readers, tablets and maker spaces.The report's findings include:
Many challenges remain, such as the scant capacity faced by many small and rural libraries and a persistent digital divide that continues to strongly impact Americans with the lowest incomes. Public libraries, whose services have innovatively adapted to the shifting economic and social landscape of the past two decades, are well positioned to act as a national network supporting communities in an age of digital disruption.
Virtually all libraries (98 percent) offer free public Wi-Fi access;
95 percent of libraries offer summer reading programs to forestall the “summer slide” in reading achievement experienced when learning takes a holiday between school terms;
Close to 90 percent of libraries offer basic digital literacy training, and a significant majority support training related to new technology devices (62 percent), safe online practices (57 percent) and social media use (56 percent);
76 percent of libraries assist patrons in using online government programs and services;
The vast majority of libraries provide programs that support people in applying for jobs (73 percent), access and using online job opportunity resources (68 percent) and using online business information resources (48 percent);
A significant majority of libraries host social connection events for adults (61 percent) and teens (60 percent) such as book discussion groups or gaming programs;
45 percent of libraries provide early-learning technologies for pre-K children; and
More than one-third of all libraries provide literacy, GED prep, STEAM and afterschool programs.
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.
Seven-in-ten (72%) Latinos ages 16 and older say they have visited a public library or bookmobile in person at one point or another in their lives, the survey shows, a share below that of whites (83%) and blacks (80%). But this finding masks a large difference among Latinos. Fully 83% of U.S.-born Latinos say they have visited a public library at some point in their lives—a share similar to that of whites and blacks. However, among immigrant Latinos, a smaller share—60%—say they have visited a public library or bookmobile in person... This gap in use between foreign-born Hispanics and U.S.-born Hispanics, whites and blacks may reflect foreign-born Hispanics’ views of the relative ease of using public libraries. According to the survey, just one-third of immigrant Hispanics say they would find it “very easy” to visit a public library in person if they wanted to do so. By comparison, 60% of U.S.-born Hispanics, 67% of whites and 59% of blacks say it would be very easy to visit a public library in person.
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 Libraries Connect Communities: Public Library Funding and Technology Access Study (PLFTAS) was the first to build on Public Libraries & the Internet, the study begun in 1994 by John Carlo Bertot and Charles R. McClure. A project overview can be found via the <http://www.ala.org/plinternetfunding> shortcut address. 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.
Findings of the most recent report in this series, Libraries Connect Communities: Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study, 2011-2012 -- released in late June 2012, just prior to the 2012 ALA Annual Conference -- 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 the previous year. Access the full Libraries Connect Communities 2011-2012 Press Kit.
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.
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.
Most Recent Resources on Library Use, Services, and Perception
Last updated: October 2015
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: firstname.lastname@example.org; or regular mail: ALA Library, American Library Association, 50 East Huron Street, Chicago, IL 60611-2795.