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IMLS Releases Latest National Public Library Data

by on August 11, 2014

A treasure trove of information and useful benchmarks for library outputs, the newest Public Libraries in the United States Survey was released in June by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The report includes data from 97 percent of United States public libraries. It includes state-by-state profiles that show state-level usage trends as well. Keep in mind that the newly released reports are based on FY 2011 data if you are comparing your library’s usage statistics.

In addition, the data files for FY 2012 are also now available. The data has been loaded into the Compare Public Libraries tool, which allows you to see how data from different libraries line up with one another. The tools allow you to limit the comparison based on similar libraries or specific variables: like geographic location, organizational characteristics, or operating revenue.

The public library data survey has been collected since 1988. This year the survey report includes 13 indicators of library activity: library visits, circulation, program attendance, computers and the Internet usage, reference transactions, library revenue, operating expenditures, collection, programs offered, public access computers, staffing, number and percent of librarians with an ALA-accredited MLS degree.

Notable trends and findings

Investment and usage

The FY 2011 study demonstrates for the first time a relationship between library investment and library use. Correlations are demonstrated between library resource indicators, like e-book volume and numbers of library visits. Another correlation was found between circulation and collection and program increases. Increases in staffing and programs are also shown to impact program attendance. The study indicates that revenue is a predictor for library visits, circulation, and program attendance.

Library visits

Library visits per capita continued to trend downward for FY 2011, down from FY 2010 by 3.6 percent. One reason for this may be the move toward online services, such as e-books. This metric does not include virtual visits, although the IMLS is looking for ways to measure this in the future.


Circulation per capita decreased nationally for the first time in 10 years by 1.6 percent between FY 2010 and FY 2011. The study found a direct correlation between expenditures on collections and circulation per capita. This is something to consider when working with tighter budgets. A decrease in the collection budget may be easier to implement than a staffing decrease, but may result in decreased overall usage.

Roughly one-third of public library circulation is children’s materials, similar to previous years. It will be interesting to see whether this trend continues as fewer new juvenile nonfiction and audio materials are available in physical formats.


The study shows a strong, continued increase in program attendance and numbers of programs offered by libraries nationally. Program attendance per capita was up 2 percent from the previous year. The statistic shows an eight-year increase in these indicators, limited only by the time the data has been collected. Growth in this library service area will impact library spaces and the need for trained staff to provide quality programs.

Public computing

Nationally, public computer user sessions per capita decreased by 7.9 percent from the prior year. However, this statistic does not necessarily show a decrease in the need for public access computing. Rather, it may be a signal of a change in how libraries deliver this service. Wireless usage of non-library devices is not included in this statistic, so keep this in mind when you are working with this data. The IMLS plans on analyzing this metric in the future.

The Public Libraries in the United States Survey report is very dense, but worth the time and effort to read and analyze. In a time that emphasizes accountability in government, library leaders will find the information useful in communicating to stakeholders how their library usage compares with national and state trends. With the demonstrated correlation between library investments and usage, leaders have a responsibility to their patrons to articulate how a library’s funding plays a key role in its success and overall value.

The data is collected each year on a voluntary basis. Currently 97 percent of U.S. public libraries are participants. If your library does not currently participate, contact your state library agency to learn how you can contribute to the FY 2014 data survey.

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