According to most recent data from the Institute of Museum and Library services annual Public Library Survey, released earlier this month, gate counts at U.S. public libraries (that is, in-person visits) rose in 2022 over 2021. Overall, however, physical library visits—which have been in a troubling decline for more than a decade—remain dramatically lower than before the pandemic. IMLS counted about 671 million physical visits in 2022 vs. roughly 1.25 billion in 2019, the year before the pandemic shutdowns. And over the last decade, the average number of library visits per user per year has fallen by nearly half (49.1%).

The decade-plus declines are nationwide: In New York, visits have fallen by 47% since 2012; in Los Angeles by 74%; San Francisco by 65%; Chicago by 66%, Miami by 52%, Philadelphia by 72%. In the big county library systems, visits are also down by large margins: visits in King County (in Washington state) are down by 51%; Multnomah (in Oregon), 54%; Cuyahoga (Ohio) 61%; and Broward County (Florida) 48%.

Also of concern, the IMLS data show a continuing drop in the number of print books held in U.S. library collections. In 2022 there were 162 million fewer books on U.S. library shelves than in 2010, a roughly 20% decline.

So what's driving the decline in visits? For five years now I have been publishing The Freckle Report, in which I present statistical evidence drawn from the IMLS (going back to 2010) alongside data from a consumer survey that I’ve been running since 2019 (with support from the EveryLibrary Institute). And as I opined in Publishers Weekly last year, I remain convinced that shrinking print book collections is the single biggest factor contributing to the decline in U.S. public library usage.

I recently concluded the user survey portion for the 2024 Freckle Report, and while the final report is forthcoming, my initial findings once again suggest that print books very likely hold the key to reversing the decline in library visits. For sure, more programming is not the answer to the decline in library usage. While many library programs are innovative and useful, the numbers show that library users are far more interested in reading and borrowing books from their libraries than attending programs.

Fortunately, despite more years of decline in physical visits, there is still great strength in U.S. public libraries. The data suggests that the shrinking gate counts is largely coming from existing users visiting libraries less often, rather than a falling number of people using libraries at all. There is no evidence to suggest that people’s need or desire for libraries has waned.

On the contrary, much of the survey data (my own and elsewhere) shows that the desire for library books has remained steady over the last decade and that Americans, particularly parents and their children, value their library service. And despite a dangerous wave of book banning across the U.S., there is also no shortage of public and political support for libraries.

Of course, that could change. After all, when political leaders believe they are paying for something their constituents aren't using, experience dictates they will eventually look to slash that funding. On that score, the U.K. stands as a cautionary tale, where library funding has been slashed by more than 50% over the past decade, and a third of the U.K.’s public libraries have now closed.

In any other operation—whether commercial or non-profit—such steady declines in usage would be the cause of great alarm and would almost certainly lead to action. But curiously, as I’ve pointed out in past articles, there has been scarcely any real discussion of these declines among U.S. library leaders, much less any ideas or potential actions to address the trend. I believe his must change. With the 2024 American Library Association annual conference now underway, I am once again calling—loudly, and urgently—for U.S. library leaders to address the troubling declines in library visits.

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