Librarians today are frustrated and angry about book banning and concerned by the high prices and restrictions on digital content. But there is another serious, fundamental threat to which the library community must pay attention: people are using libraries a lot less than they used to.
In my last three Freckle Reports (from 2020, 2021, and 2022) I presented the statistical evidence that both gate counts and circulation numbers have fallen consistently and dramatically over the last decade. The data is drawn from U.S. libraries’ reports to the Institute for Museum and Library Services dating back to 2010, and a consumer survey that I’ve been running since 2019 (with support from the EveryLibrary Institute).
The declines are serious and suggest that the library’s reputation as a vital community resource is in peril. How serious? I fear these trends could lead to the disintegration of U.S. public libraries within a generation if allowed to continue. And without strategic changes visible to the public, I believe they will continue.
Take the U.K. as a cautionary tale. Over the last decade, use of U.K. libraries has been halved and a third of the U.K.’s public libraries have closed. U.K. library usage statistics are now so insignificant that the government appears reluctant to report them. And despite in-person library visits rebounding sharply from their pandemic lows, the Guardian last week reported that library funding in Britain fell by 17% in 2021/2022.
The danger is clear and evident: when political leaders believe they are paying for something their constituents don’t use, they will eventually look to slash that funding.
In the U.S., the problem facing libraries is not a problem of funding—at least not yet. While gate counts and circulation figures have dropped precipitously over the last decade, library funding has actually remained fairly steady. Rather, I believe the problem is rooted in library leadership not understanding—or perhaps not accepting—what the public wants most from their libraries. In a word, books.
Recently, I read an article online in which a librarian argued that the three most important features of his library are its technology, its programs, and its staff. Yet, despite libraries investing millions of dollars into technology, programs, and staff over the last decade. usage statistics for U.S. library systems are steadily declining.
At the same time there has been no shortage of research suggesting that what the public values most from their public libraries is access to books, in all formats, and a place to read or work in quiet, comfortable, safe surroundings. In the 2022 Freckle consumer survey, some 74% of respondents said their library use was related to reading books and private study with the remaining 26% spread across a variety of other services—findings that have remained consistent since I began running the survey in 2019, and which tracks with other surveys over the years.
It follows that improving features that relate to books and reading holds the key to reversing the decline in library usage. And I believe that a renewed focus on books and reading should be the priority for spending and management.
Consider this: the total annual funding of U.S. public libraries today is greater than the entire income of U.S. trade publishing, yet the amount of money public libraries spend on books each year amounts to only about 5% of publishers’ income. According to the most recent IMLS statistics, of the 8,000-plus public libraries in the United States some 4,000—fully half—are spending less than $2 per resident on books, while the average funding per local resident is $40.
Spending $2 per person on books is not enough. Spending $4 per person would be better. And I believe that if just 6% of the money currently in the staff and management budget was spent instead on books, we would begin to reverse the decline in library usage.
Instead, things appear to be going in the opposite direction. Statistics show that over the past decade U.S. libraries have removed—and not replaced—tens of millions of books, despite the clear need to increase the size of collections to serve the growing diversity of the population. Shrinking book collections has been a terrible mistake, and in my opinion is the single biggest factor bringing about the steep decline in U.S. public library usage figures.
At the same time, usage data suggests that shifting more attention to technology and digital services has not served the library well. For example, the use of library computer terminals fell by 40% in the years before the pandemic, and continues to fall. But even at its highest point, the number of people using computer terminals in libraries was very small compared to those who use libraries for books and reading.
Libraries are also spending increasing amounts of time and money on licensing digital content, which continues to offer a poor return on investment: many e-book licenses are costly and expire within two years; patrons who use digital collections don’t have to visit libraries; children use digital services very little, and, of grave concern, the circulation of physical children’s books is also in decline.
More programming is not the answer to the decline in library usage, either. While many library programs are useful, the number of people attending programs and events at U.S. public libraries is tiny compared to book circulations. Numerically, libraries achieve far greater impact from people reading and borrowing books than from attending programs. Survey data collected for the Freckle Report shows that some 80% of people say they read or use books, but only 20% say they are using public libraries. Surely we can do better. Yes, librarians can and should read stories to children. But libraries cannot survive as social care, community, and learning centers—the math simply doesn’t support such a focus.
The good news is that there is great strength in U.S. public libraries, and plenty on which to build. So as I have done in the last three Freckle Reports, I am once again calling—loudly, and urgently—for a major initiative among U.S. library directors to refocus their efforts on improving their book collections and services. I believe this would rapidly, measurably, and visibly increase the usage of public libraries, and begin to reverse the negative trends of the last decade.
Tim Coates has worked in the book industry for four decades, including as the former CEO of Waterstone's and WH Smith in Europe. He has tracked, advised, commented on, and worked in the public library service for 20 years in the U.K., U.S., and other countries. He can be reached at email@example.com.