In a report published this week, veteran London-based bookseller, library advocate, and former Waterstones managing director Tim Coates warns that U.S. public library usage statistics show a steep decline—and he suggests that library leaders must do more to address the trend.
“In the U.S. there has been a fall of 31% in public library building use over eight years, up to 2018,” Coates writes in the Freckle Report 2021, concluding that a “continuous decline of this nature,” which includes drops in both gate counts and physical circulation, “shows that the public library service ignores the figures it does have and does not strive to find the figures it should have.”
In addition to the 31% decline in library building use cited in the U.S., Coates reports a 22% drop over 10 years in Australia, and a stunning 70% decline in the U.K. since the year 2000.
The Freckle Report 2021 is the second publication from Coates to focus on public library service in the U.S., the U.K., and Australia. The report is based on public data reported by government library agencies (including the Institute for Museum and Library Services in the U.S.) as well as a proprietary consumer survey, "Where Did You Get That Book?" commissioned by Coates (and this year fielded by EveryLibraryInstitute.org, which is hosting a free webinar with Coates today) that explores reading behavior.
Notably, the 2021 survey, which was conducted last month, includes the impact of the pandemic on reading behavior. It found that more consumers across all age groups read more during the pandemic, with some 87% of U.S. respondents reporting they’d made use of a book in 2021 vs. 81% in the the previous survey conducted in 2019.
The report also confirms what libraries, vendors, and publishers have repeatedly noted over the last year: there has been a sharp increase in digital reading during the pandemic, which, Coates concludes, holds major implications for the future of libraries.
“During the Covid-19 pandemic libraries have been very successful providing digital content,” the report states. At the same time, there has been an understandable drop in physical usage, given closures, stay-at home orders, and other Covid-19 restrictions—a development that has Coates particularly concerned.
“The fall in public library building use was critical before the pandemic and a continuing high level of use of digital materials will make that worse,” he writes. The report also acknowledges the contentious state of the digital library market, which Coates suggests does not represent a good value and may require a new strategic approach.
“The investment in digital material appears to have taken away significant funds from that of physical materials and the cost-per-circulation of digital material is three-and-a-half times that of physical material,” Coates writes. “In stark terms, in most libraries under current arrangements, it would be many times cheaper to give a patron the money to buy an e-book than to license a copy for the library.”
While Coates urges libraries and publishers to find a more "cooperative" way forward (he acknowledges that both libraries and publishers are invested in the reading enterprise) he also hits at the cause of the tension: the major publishers dictate license terms to libraries without negotiation, and libraries have virtually no bargaining power to get publishers to negotiate more equitable pricing and access.
“This deduction will doubtless frustrate and even annoy librarians, but the reality is that libraries don’t spend enough on books, particularly print books, to be entitled to influence a publisher’s entire sales or pricing strategy,” Coates writes. “Librarians must seek ways to build a more cooperative relationship with publishers—it is in their court: publishers don’t feel the same need.”
The report also points to the key role libraries play in serving diverse communities. "There is a big opportunity for public libraries to lead the way forward in addressing diverse audiences and pulling the publishing industry with them," Coates writes.
When it was first published in February of 2020, the initial Freckle Report generated pushback from some librarians, particularly as it threw cold water on a much-celebrated 2019 Gallup survey that had put public libraries at the top of the list of Americans' most visited places—ahead of the movies, concerts, and even public parks. The Freckle Report 2021 is likely to draw similar pushback, as it appears to suggest that library leaders are ignoring or altogether missing negative trends, and in some cases may be cherry-picking narratives unsupported by numbers to justify their services.
“The only issue that is of concern to libraries is their access to funding, whatever has to be said to achieve that,” Coates writes at one point in the 2021 report. “Consequently, advocacy and explanation of the need for funding is often based on the anecdotal, but not numerical, benefit from people who use [libraries]. It certainly does not come from people who have ceased to use [libraries] or whom one would expect to use it but don’t, and for whom addressing problems would be beneficial.”
So, what does Coates see when he looks at the available library data?
A "long running and persistent decline in the use of U.S. public library buildings" and "no realistic actions in place" to reverse the trend, he writes. "The decline is in nearly all states and is widespread. It is universal among the largest library systems." And driving that decline, he suggests, is a fall in the allocation of resources to the item of top priority and value to library users: printed books, which, the data suggests remains by far the most popular and and core resource in public libraries.
More broadly, the problem Coates appears to see in the library data is that there isn’t nearly enough of it. And what data is available isn’t granular enough to be valuable.
He points to a swath of IMLS data as an example: the raw visit and circulation figures from IMLS do not show how many Americans use libraries or how often. The data collected by IMLS is usually over a year old by the time it is made available. And it does not evolve quickly enough, he suggests, noting that only three new measures have been added by IMLS in the last 10 years.
“The responsibility for setting meaningful publicly available measures has to lie with library directors and with those who advocate for funds,” the report concludes, adding that the profession needs better measures to understand what’s working and what's not in America's libraries. “The public library service urgently needs stable, consistent, recognizable, timely measures of its usefulness and its performance within the wider and diverse community. Only these will provide the evidence needed by funders and the public to support the service in the future. It does not have them at present. Without them it is at risk.”
Coates acknowledged to PW that this year's report will likely again draw criticism from some in the library community, but insisted he is a library supporter. "I suppose the overall impression will be that I want to be in conflict with libraries, but that's not true at all," he told PW. "I just fear that that if they don't address their problems, they will run into more serious problems and that will affect the service they give."
The full report is available for purchase or download from various outlets, including Amazon. And for those who want to hear more directly from Coates, the EveryLibrary Institute is hosting a free webinar with Coates today, May 6, at 2 p.m. EST. For those who cannot make today's web event, it will be archived and available sometime on Friday, May 7.