Benchmark Briefings

Abstract representation of different types of dataAt the Public Library Association (PLA), we believe that library workers are experts at helping their community members access and make use of information. We also believe that library workers should be able to access and make use of data about their institutions. Data analysis is essential for library advocacy, but it can sometimes feel daunting, especially when it comes to peer comparison. With more than 9,000 public libraries in the U.S., it’s hard to know where to begin.

To support the public library field’s peer benchmarking needs, PLA has invested in research to identify ways to better communicate and display key metrics related to internal decision-making. These metrics, reported annually by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), are freely and publicly available but the data are not typically utilized to their full potential. The Benchmark Briefings are a first step in PLA’s work to support greater adoption and understanding of this annual data set.

Whether you are dipping your toes into peer comparison for the first time or can name each of your library’s IMLS-defined characteristics in your sleep, the Benchmark Briefings will give you a clear snapshot into how your library measures up against others. Use this resource to learn how your library’s expenditures compare to other libraries that share the same legal basis or learn how your collection size fares compared to other libraries in your region. We hope that this resource will bridge existing data knowledge gaps and pave the way for deeper data insight, exploration, and advocacy.

View the full summary document as a PDF.

View the full summary document as an Excel spreadsheet.

To view two-page PDFs for each benchmark category, scroll down to the "Library Characteristics" section below.

Key Measures Reported

The key measures included in the Benchmark Briefings are commonly used by public libraries when making internal decisions about library investments. They represent one year of data from FY 2018 and are reported at the Administrative Entity level. A summary of each measure is outlined below, and a full glossary of terms can be found at  

  • Expenditures: Operating expenditures are the current and recurrent costs necessary to support the provision of library services. These include staff salaries, wages, and benefits, collection expenditures (print and electronic), and other spending such as consultant fees, replacement IT hardware, or office supplies.
  • Staff: The total number of full-time equivalent (FTE) library staff, including both librarians with master's degrees from LIS programs and other paid FTE employees.
  • Collection: The physical collection includes print materials (books and government documents), and physical units of audio and video content (CD-ROMs, DVDs, etc.). The electronic collection includes electronic books and downloadable units of audio and video content, such as items purchased or leased by the library or consortium.
  • Circulation: Total annual circulation includes both the physical item circulation and the use of electronic materials.
  • Visits: Total annual library visits. The per capita figure reflects the number of visits per person in the library’s service area population.
  • Programs: The data includes both the number of programs annually and the total attendance at those programs. Per capita figures reflect the number of programs and attendance per 1,000 people in a library’s service area.

Library Characteristics

Not sure where your library fits in?

  • To find your library’s legal basis, region, and locale visit the IMLS Search and Compare tool. This tool allows you to use a variety of filtering options to view at the raw data. This is a great way for libraries to explore the data set in greater depth and identify more specific peer groups.
  • Libraries are grouped based on demographic characteristics of the census tract in which the administrative entity is located. These estimates come from the Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey. To find the racial demographics or educational attainment level for your community, use a tool like the Census Data Reporter or

Legal Basis

The legal basis is the type of local government structure within which the entity functions. It reflects the state or local law, which authorizes the library.

  • City/County or County/Parish: City/county refers to a multi-jurisdictional entity that is operated jointly by a county and a city. County/parish refers to an organized local government authorized in a state’s constitution and statutes and established to provide general government.
  • Municipal Government (city, town, or village): A municipal government is an organized local government authorized in a state’s constitution and statutes and established to provide general government for a specific concentration of population in a defined area.
  • Library District: A library district is a local entity other than a county, municipality, township, or school district that is authorized by state law to establish and operate a public library as defined by FSCS. It has sufficient administrative and fiscal autonomy to qualify as a separate government. Fiscal autonomy requires support from local taxation dedicated to library purposes (e.g., a library tax).
  • Multi-jurisdictional, Native American Tribal Government, School District, or Other: Multi-jurisdictional is an entity operated jointly by two or more units of local government under an intergovernmental agreement which creates a jointly appointed board or similar means of joint governance; to be distinguished from a library which contracts to serve other jurisdictions and from special library districts. A Native American Tribal Government is an organized local government authorized and established to provide general government to residents of a Native American reservation. A School District is an organized local entity providing public elementary, secondary, and/or higher education which, under state law, has sufficient administrative and fiscal autonomy to qualify as a separate government. Excludes "dependent public school systems" of county, municipal, township, or state governments.
  • Non-profit Association or Agency: An entity privately controlled but meeting the statutory definition of a public library in a given state; includes association libraries and libraries with 501(c) designation.


  • Northeast: Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington DC
  • Great Lakes: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin
  • Plains: Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota
  • Southeast: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia
  • Southwest, Rocky Mountains, or West: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington, Wyoming


  • City: Territory inside an urbanized area and inside a principal city.
  • Suburb: Territory outside a principal city and inside an urbanized area with population.
  • Town or Rural: Territory inside an urban cluster that outside of an urbanized area or census-defined rural territory.

Community Members Identifying as Person of Color

Community Members Age 25 or Over with a College Degree or Higher

The Benchmark Briefings were developed using IMLS FY 2018 Public Libraries Survey data by the Public Library Association, members from PLA’s Measurement, Evaluation and Assessment Committee (MEAC), and the American Institutes for Research.

Questions? Please contact Program Officer Nellie Barrett at