For four years now I have been trying to alert American public libraries to a serious problem: gate counts—that is, the number of visits to public library buildings—have been in decline, now off by more than a third since 2011. In any other operation—whether commercial or non-profit—such a decline would be the cause of great alarm and would almost certainly lead to action. But curiously, there has scarcely been any acknowledgement of the issue among U.S. library leaders, much less plans to address it.
In March, I published an article in Publishers Weekly detailing the problem and subsequently was invited by Frankfurt Book Fair organizers to speak on the topic at this year’s event. At my talk I shall share findings from both my own survey data and from the latest government statistics on public libraries (which I collect, analyze, and publish together annually as The Freckle Report). And I will offer my views on how publishers and libraries can—and must—reverse the decline in U.S. library usage before it’s too late.
For the U.S., the state of libraries in the U.K. stands as a cautionary tale. Over the last 20 years, half of the country’s public libraries have either closed or are being operated by untrained volunteers. Use of the library service is down 70%. Thirty years ago, the U.K.’s public libraries were among the best in the world.
At its heart, the decline in public library usage derives from an initiative that took root some 25 years ago. The intention was to widen the appeal of public libraries by evolving them into community hubs. Today, libraries have cut the number of books on offer, and now provide a broad array of programs and services, including things like digital expertise, access to technology, healthcare, and other social services, assistance in job searches or work issues, and other programs designed to foster personal and community wellbeing. Looking at the data, however, the plan hasn’t worked.
Recently, the British Government published new public library usage statistics after not having done so for roughly three years. The data revealed:
- Hardly anyone uses libraries anymore: half of library visits came from just 2% of the population, and the number who reported visiting the library at least once a year is below 20%. That’s off by almost two-thirds since the measure was introduced in 2005 (a decline surely accelerated by the pandemic).
- The library’s programs are largely unused. The U.K. library profession called them “the universal offers of a library” but over the last eight years they have failed to attract more than one-half of a percent of the population.
- Some 35 million books have been removed from U.K. public libraries in recent years—nearly a third of what they once held.
Meanwhile, the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) in the U.S. has delivered complete figures up to 2021 (and incomplete reports from individual libraries about 2022 and 2023). The IMLS figures show that:
- The decline in gate counts in the U.S. is widespread, even at large and well-funded libraries.
- The Covid-19 lockdowns have made the problem of declining gate counts worse.
- Reductions in print book collections in the U.S. is, per citizen, per year, accelerating at a higher rate than in the U.K. Over the last decade, 150 million books have been removed from U.S. public libraries and not replaced—approximately a quarter of the books per citizen U.S. libraries once offered.
Among U.S. librarians, I liken the issue of declining gate counts to climate change: no one in leadership appears to want to address the problem—and some are in outright denial. But any problem is easier to face if we know there is a solution. And for this problem, I believe there is: books.
The data shows that the most popular feature of the library by far remains access to print books. And I believe that refocusing library service on access to print books, replacing the quantities of books they have removed, and committing to adding more books would rapidly, measurably, and visibly increase the usage of public libraries, and begin to reverse the negative trends of the last decade.
At my talk at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, I shall renew my call for an urgent industry initiative at the highest levels to explore how publishers and libraries can address their mutual need to better serve readers. I shall underscore for publishers how the declining focus on print books by libraries—and the library’s declining usage—has had a profound effect not only on their sales but on the range of titles they can afford to take on. And I’ll explain why publishers and librarians must commit to building a constructive new working relationship.
If there is good news, it is that libraries in the U.S. still maintain a wonderful reputation as trusted institutions. But declining usage trends present a clear and present danger: when political leaders believe they are paying for something their constituents aren’t using, they will eventually look to slash that funding.
Tim Coates has worked in the book industry for four decades, including as the former CEO of Waterstones and WHSmith 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.
He will be taking part in a discussion entitled “Are there Enough Books in Public Libraries?” at 12 noon today on the Frankfurt International Stage (between Halls 5.1 and 6.1).