As librarians prepare to gather in Orlando, how are public librarians feeling about their budgets, and how are they spending those budgets? We wanted to know, so we asked.

With costs underwritten by publisher Rowman & Littlefield, PW put together an informal survey for this year’s BookExpo America, which took place in Chicago in May. Survey questionnaires were completed in the PW-sponsored Librarians’ Lounge, as well as online through the first week of June, via Survey Monkey. In all, nearly 190 librarians from public libraries of all sizes and from all regions took part, answering some or all of the survey questions. We are just beginning to parse the data, but what follows are some of the topline results, which offer an interesting snapshot of where libraries are as we prepare to gather for the 2016 ALA Annual Conference.

First, we asked librarians about their collections budgets. Specifically, we asked how budgets have fared over the past three-year period, to get a better sense of how budgets are trending as the economy has shown modest improvement. Unlike more scientific library surveys, such as Library Journal’s annual budget survey, considered by many to be the gold standard, ours was more or less looking for a general up, down, or flat answer from each respondent, rather than assessing how much budgets may or may not be growing. But like the results of recent LJ surveys, the topline numbers we got suggest that collection budgets may be stabilizing, although too many libraries still face cuts.

Overall, roughly 87% of respondents said their 2016 collection budgets are up over their 2013 levels, or flat. More than a third of respondents (35%) reported an increase, while more than half reported that their budgets are flat (52%) compared to three years ago. But nearly 13% of respondents said their collection budgets had declined.

Print vs. Digital?

The bulk of the survey sought to get a general sense of how libraries are spending their collection budgets, and the data reveals some fascinating trends. For one, print is still holding its own in the library. Nearly half of all respondents (47%) reported that their print circulation was increasing, while 23% reported that print circulation is flat. Roughly 30% reported that print circulation is in decline.

E-books in libraries, meanwhile, continue to grow. Overall, 87% of respondents said e-book circulation is still growing. However, 56% of those respondents said the rate of e-book circulation growth is slowing—a result that tracks with numbers from some major vendors. OverDrive, for example, by far the leading provider of e-books in the library market, also reported a strong uptick in circulations of library e-books in 2015, but at a slower rate of growth than in previous years.

Notably, most library e-book circulations are being posted by a small number of users: nearly two-thirds of respondents (62%) estimated that 10% or fewer of their patrons check out e-books; 30% of respondents put the number of e-book users at their libraries between 10% and 25%. Again, that number tracks with what librarians have told PW anecdotally. In addition, a survey released at last year’s ALA Annual Conference by the Book Industry Study Group found that just 25% of library patrons had borrowed an e-book in the previous year.

Digital audio is also surging in libraries, as it is in the consumer realm. Some 74% of respondents report growth in e-audio circulation, with 41% reporting strong growth.

Purchase Decisions

We also asked librarians to tell us a little about how they are buying these days. Among the notable findings: more than half of respondents (54%) are buying some titles in digital only—mostly romance and erotica books, according to the written comments also submitted, and self-published works.

A full two-thirds (66%) of respondents said they buy self-published titles for their libraries. And while some self-publishing platform providers (for example, Smashwords and Self-e) are working with libraries and library e-book vendors, it appears from the write-in comments that many of those purchases are works from local authors or are in response to specific patron requests.

When it comes to purchasing decisions, roughly 38% of respondents said they enable PDA (patron-driven acquisitions), a growing trend in which patrons directly participate in and influence library purchases. Roughly 79% of respondents said their libraries buy from Amazon, although the write-in comments suggest that such purchases do not make up a large portion of most libraries’ acquisitions at this point.

E-books: A Glass Half-Full?

Some of the most interesting information, meanwhile, came in response to questions we asked about satisfaction with e-book services, a thorny subject for many libraries, and a topic of intense interest at recent ALA conferences. Our findings show that librarians are largely satisfied with the progress made on e-book lending to date, but believe there is still a ways to go on many fronts.

Nearly two-thirds (63%) of respondents said their patrons are satisfied with their libraries’ e-book services. But just 7% said their patrons are very satisfied, and the remainder (30%) said their patrons are somewhat satisfied. Not a single respondent said his or her patrons were dissatisfied. At first glance, the write-in comments said what you’d expect: in general, respondents said that readers are happy to be able to borrow e-books from their libraries. But, respondents also note, common complaints among patrons include hold times that are too long for popular titles, and a lending process that remains too complicated.

As for the libraries themselves, the results largely mirror the satisfaction levels of the patrons they serve: 58% said they are satisfied with the current e-book lending services, while 8% said they are very satisfied; 32% said they are somewhat satisfied, and 4% said they are dissatisfied. Cost and managing the various models are the most prominent complaints librarians lodged regarding e-books, with nearly 80% saying they are “very concerned” about high library e-book prices.

More to Come

Again, this is an informal survey, meant to reflect librarians’ general attitudes. But the topline results are worth noting, and with our write-in component still to be parsed, we’re also reaching out to may of the librarians who participated in the survey to get a more complete picture of how libraries are spending their budgets. Stay tuned.

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