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FEATURE | The 2015 Public Library Data Service Statistical Report: Characteristics & Trends

by Ian Reid on June 22, 2016

About the Author

IAN REID is Vice President of Customer Service at Counting Opinions (SQUIRE) Ltd., Toronto (ON) Canada. Contact Ian at ireid@countingopinions.com. Ian is currently reading Adding Value to Libraries, Archives and Museums: Harnessing the Force that Drives Your Organization’s Future by Joseph R. Matthews.

Originally published in May/Jun 2016, PUBLIC  LIBRARIES,  VOLUME 55, NUMBER 3.

The Public Library Data Service (PLDS) annual survey is conducted by Counting Opinions (SQUIRE) Ltd. (CO) on behalf of PLA. This survey of public libraries from the United States and Canada was collected in 2015 for the fiscal year 2014 (FY2014). It includes data on finances, resources, service usage, and technology. Each year PLDS includes a special section. This year the supplemental ques­tions focused on strategic planning.

CO provides an online service for capturing data and access­ing results. The PLAmetrics subscription service offers access to the longitudinal PLDS data sets from FY2002. Also included is the Public Library Survey annual data (from FY2000) as provided by the Institute of Museums and Library Services (IMLS). PLAmetrics provides subscribers with real-time access to meaningful and relevant public library data for peer benchmarking and trend analysis using a custom reporting service that includes customiz­able report templates.

This report presents an analysis of selected measures from the FY2014 PLDS and previous results, conducted by CO using the PLAmetrics reporting service.

Research Method and Context

Participation in the PLDS is voluntary and participants have the option to provide responses to any and/or all questions that com­prise the survey. Similar to previous years, public libraries in the United States and Canada are invited to participate in the survey.

CO sent 3,372 emails to launch the survey (January 2015). Public libraries throughout North America and state agencies were notified of the survey via email, social media, and webpage posts. Postcards promoting participation were handed out at 2015 ALA Midwinter Meeting. Follow-up letters and emails were sent throughout February and March. The original deadline for submission (March 31, 2015) was extended to April 30, 2015.

State data coordinators from the United States and provin­cial/association coordinators in Canada were contacted about promoting the survey to their libraries. Their involvement led to increased participation including 2,454 of US and Canadian public libraries partially or fully responding to the request for data, a response rate of 26% (a 23% increase over 2014). Due to the voluntary nature of this survey, ultimately only 1,894 libraries are included in the final data analysis. This represents an increase from the FY2013 participation (1,800).

Copies of the survey including definitions are available online via the PLDS Survey site, http://pla.countingopinions.com.


The following summary of key findings is primarily based on analysis of results for the continuously reporting libraries:

  • Population (based on legal service area) is growing (although slowly) for libraries serving 500,000 or more, and has been stable for libraries serving smaller populations. Our analysis uses per capita analysis to control for any changes in results.
  • Mean income per capita increased 3% in FY2014, the most significant increase in the past six years, and yet the mean budget surplus (gap between per capita income and expenditures) continued to nar­row to $2.12 per capita.
  • Mean expenditures per capita on staff and “other” rose past pre-recession levels, yet mean materi­als expenditure has yet to recover to those previous levels.
  • Libraries continue to add more non-MLS than MLS librarians to their staff.
  • Mean circulation per capita continues to decline; the result of continuing declines in print and CD/DVD mean circulation per capita, and while there is some growth in circulation of electronic materials (mean) this growth does not fully offset these declines.
  • Steady increases in both the num­ber of programs and overall per capita attendance shows a shift in library service usage.
  • Declining physical library and vir­tual website visits indicates that users are changing their demand for library services.
  • Libraries offering lending of tablet devices continues to increase.

PL_55n3_reid_fig1 PL_55n3_reid_fig2

Operating Finances

Cuts to library budgets can be seen be­tween 2009 and 2013. Most likely this was precipitated by the global financial crisis, during that period when state and local governments saw declining tax revenues.

Between 2009 and 2013 mean income per capita for the continuously reporting libraries was mostly stagnant. The five-year average annual growth during this time was -0.18%, while mean expenditures began to increase between FY2011–13 (see figure 1). The narrowing of margins between income and expenditure contin­ued ($2.67 per capita surplus in FY2013; $2.12 per capita surplus in FY2014).

In FY2014 mean income per capita increased 3% but mean expenditures per capita increased by 4.2% compared to FY2013. The increase in income enabled libraries to further increase operating spending, including spending on materi­als, staff and other expenditures (e.g., capital maintenance and improvements).

The FY2014 (3.0%) increase in income is the largest increment since the recession when an increase of 3.58% was reported between FY2007–08 for the continuously reporting libraries.

Operating Expenditures

Figure 2 shows the percentage change in mean operating expenditures per capita and mean income per capita relative to 2004 spending and income levels.

Since 2011, mean staff expenditures per capita and mean other expenditures per capita increased an average of 1.5% per year while mean materials expendi­tures grew by only 1.2% per year. Since FY2008, the change in mean materials expenditures is, in fact, down versus staff and other expenditures and does appear to be a trend. This downward trend in relative expenditures on materials may help to explain the downward trend in other measures of library service usage.

PL_55n3_reid_fig3 PL_55n3_reid_fig4 PL_55n3_reid_fig5


Figure 3 compares means for population legal service area (LSA) (tens of thou­sands), staff expenditures per capita, and staff per 1000 capita for the continuously reporting libraries. The mean increase between FY2010–14 in both Pop LSA (0.45%) and staff expenditures per capita (1.18%) suggests increasing salary/wages as a result of more hours and/or more employees and/or a change in the mix of professional to regular staff (MLS, non-MLS, and other staff).

Mean total number of staff (FTE) for the continuously reporting libraries increased (4.7%) between FY2011–14 and the median has increased 9.0%. Mean staff per 1000 capita decreased 0.37% between FY2005–14, the result of slower growth in staff count relative to popula­tion.

Figure 4 shows changes in the compo­sition of staff over time amongst the con­tinuously reporting libraries (N=203). The percentage of FTEs with librarian in their job title has increased on average 1.72% per year between FY2005 and FY2014 while the mean percentage of FTEs with other qualifications has decreased on average 0.75% per year.

While the mean number of staff per 1000 capita has decreased (-0.37%, FY2005–14; -1.27% FY2009–14 because growth in numbers of staff is slower than population growth), the proportion of staff with librarian in their title (30.65% in FY2014) has increased steadily year-over-year relative to those with other qualifications. Since FY2005, the per­centage of staff with other qualifications has decreased (-0.70%) every year while the percentage of staff with librarian titles (primarily non-MLS librarians) has increased annually (1.72%).

Figure 5 shows that between FY2009–14 the mean percentage of librarians (with and without an MLS degree) have increased for the continuously reporting libraries (N=199).

The mean percentage of MLS librar­ians (FTE) employed by the continuously reporting libraries has increased 2.39% and the mean percentage of non-MLS librarians (FTE) employed by the continu­ously reporting libraries has increased 3.49% since FY2009. In the last six years, the mean percentage non-MLS librar­ians (FTE) was lowest in FY2012 (8.02%) and increased 4% in the last two years to 12.02%, the highest in the past six years.


These changes in the mix of staff FTE (MLS, non-MLS, and other), likely impact changes in overall salaries, wages and benefits that likely account for a large part of the mean increase in expenditures on staff.

FY2014 was the second year that the PLDS collected staff hours versus head counts. This change to the way this data was reported seems to have had no ad­verse impact on results (see table 1).

Responding libraries reported fewer issues and asked fewer questions about reporting their staff hours. These annual hours worked are used to determine the number of FTE staff (based on each library’s definition for FTE).

Service Levels

PL_55n3_reid_fig6 PL_55n3_reid_fig7

The mean number of registered borrow­ers per capita increased (0.5%) in FY2014 to 62.5 for the continuously reporting libraries (N=216) (see figure 6). This in­crease led to results comparable to those reported in FY2011 but is lower than the 63.3% achieved in FY2012. Despite the decrease in FY2013, registered borrow­ers per capita did recover somewhat and overall has been somewhat stable over the past five years.

Registered borrowers are one of the main drivers of demand for library ser­vices but despite the increase in FY2014, there was a decrease in circulation, visits, and in-library use. Only reference transaction per capita (mean) increased in FY2014. Mean reference transac­tions per capita steadily declined 2.81% since FY2008, but increased by 0.85% in FY2014. This is the first increase following five years of declines.

PL_55n3_reid_fig8Figure 6 also shows mean visits per de­clining year-over-year starting in FY2009. Mean visits per capita declined to 5.92 in FY2014 versus 6.05 in FY2004.

Similarly, mean circulation per capita has continued to decline to 11.67 in FY2014 from 12.45 in FY2009—but still represents usage higher than pre-recession levels (10.67 in FY2007).

Mean in-library uses per capita has continued to decline at an average of 7.2% per year. In FY2014, 1.3 mean in-library uses per capita was less than half the value reported in FY2004 (2.7).

PL_55n3_reid_fig9Despite increases in income, expen­ditures (see figure 2), and registered bor­rowers (see figure 6) in FY2014, visits per capita, circulation per capita, and in-library use per capita have continued to decline suggesting further decreases in usage in the future. Perhaps increased spending and resulting improvements in service lev­els, and/or the range of services offered by the library will result in increased usage in future years (assuming increased spending has an effect on service usage).

The growth in registered borrow­ers (see figure 7) is greatest for smaller libraries (up to 99,999 pop served, N=67) and larger libraries (500,000 or more pop served, N=57), who realized 1.9% and 2.8% growth in FY2014 versus an average of 0.2% and 0.8% growth per year be­tween FY2009–14 (note: mean population of legal service area increased an average of 0.35% and 0.51% per year for these libraries the same period; see figure 17).

PL_55n3_reid_fig10Registered borrowers for medium- sized libraries (pop served 100,000–499,999, N=92), however, decreased by 0.7% per year between FY2009 and FY2014; see figure 7 (note: mean popula­tion of legal service area also decreased an average of 0.33% per year for this group of libraries over the same period; see figure 17).

Steady increases (4% and 5.2%/year on average) in the number of programs delivered (mean programs/1000 capita) and program attendance growth (mean attendance/1000 capita) since FY2010 (see figure 8) suggests that libraries are shifting their service delivery priorities.

In the last three years the averagenumber of programs offered by the con­tinuously reporting libraries has increased at an average rate of 5.9% per year while average program attendance grew more slowly (4.4% per year).

In FY2014 both programs and atten­dance per capita increased faster than any previous year (Programs, +7.3% and Attendance, +6.3%).

Materials Expenditures and Usage

PL_55n3_reid_fig11PL_55n3_reid_fig12Overall mean expenditures on materials per capita increased in FY2014 (see figure 1). The allocation of spending amongst electronic, print, and CD/DVD materials is shown in figure 9 for the continuously reporting libraries (N=178). Note:

  • mean electronic materials expen­ditures per capita rose $0.13 (13 cents) per capita;
  • mean print materials expendi­tures per capita rose by $0.03 (3 cents) per capita;
  • mean CD/DVD materials expendi­tures per capita rose by $0.02 (2 cents) per capita; and
  • mean other materials expendi­tures per capita were reduced by $0.11 (11 cents) per capita.

There is an inverse relationship (see figure 10) between mean materials expenditures and mean circulation per capita; as materials expenditure per capita increases, circulation per capita declines.

As figure 10 shows, while mean mate­rials expenditures per capita varied, there was an overall average increase over the past five years (+0.8%/year) for the continuously reporting libraries, the mean circulation per capita has been steadily declining (-2.0%/year) and is declining at a faster rate (-3.05%/year) in the past three years (FY2012–14).

There appears to be a relationship be­tween decreased mean expenditures on print materials and mean print circulation per capita. as depicted in figure 11, print materials expenditures and print circula­tion continue to show a close relation­ship as depicted by the linear trend lines. although mean print materials expendi­tures increased in FY2014 (0.8%), print circulation continued to decline (-3.99% FY2013; -4.85% FY2014).

In contrast, figure 12 shows mean expenditures electronic materials per capita rising an average of 13.7% per year since FY2011. These expenditures grew by 8% last year (FY2014) compared to over 16% in each of the previous two years (FY2012–13). Meanwhile, e-book circula­tion has been climbing an average of 55.5% per year (since FY2011) but growth slowed to 34.3% between FY2013–14.

Mean electronic circulation per capita (0.94) has begun replacing decreases in mean print circulation (0.75) since FY2011, but not sufficient to replace the decline in mean print circulation (1.25) and mean CD/DVD circulation per capita (0.55) since FY2010.

PL_55n3_reid_table2 PL_55n3_reid_table3Table 2 shows the five-year trend for mean circulation per capita by population grouping for the continuously reporting libraries (N=211). Over the past five years (FY2010–14) decreases in mean circula­tion per capita have been four times greater for the smaller (<100,000 served) and larger library systems (>500,000 served) compared to the medium-sized libraries (100,000 to 499,000). In FY2014, the medium libraries showed small growth (0.1%) in circulation per capita.

Small libraries (<100,000 served) increased their holdings per capita by 5.3% in the past year, a continuing trend, which translates to an average annual growth of 3.4%. Population growth has been relatively stable with a small annual increase in the past five years (0.16%) (see figure 17).

Larger libraries (>500,000 served) have decreased holdings per capita over the past five years (FY2010–14) at a rate of 0.3% per year. Since FY2011 growth of holdings slowed and began to contract slowly in subsequent years, the result of higher population growth for the libraries versus the increase of holdings (see figure 17).

PL_55n3_reid_fig13Medium libraries (100,000–499,999 served) have reduced holdings per capita in the past four years (FY2011–14) versus a 0.2% increase between FY2010–11. Since 2011, holdings per capita are slowly declining during a period of stable aver­age populations for these libraries (see figure 17).

Collection turnover per capita by population grouping for the continuously reporting libraries (see figure 13) shows an overall downward trend; declining col­lection turnover per capita for all continu­ously reporting libraries.

Lower per capita circulation rates and somewhat larger holdings per capita have led to decreases in mean collection turn­over—more significantly for libraries serv­ing <100,000. Lower per capita circulation rates are the primary reason for smaller collection turnover rates for the larg­est libraries. For the other libraries, the collection turnover rate decreased more slowly resulting from similar decreases in both collection and holdings per capita over time.

Virtual Access

As libraries have diversified their service offerings to include online services and materials readily available for download and use, anywhere, anytime, this has not translated to increases in website visits. In fact, accesses per capita to the website are declining. Figure 14 shows the declin­ing trend for website visits per capita for the continuously reporting libraries. (Note: data for 2010 website visits was not captured.)

Since 2009 Website visits per capita have fallen 19.1 percent per year and be­tween FY2013–14 the rate of decline was almost twice that (-36.6%).

These declining website visit counts may be due to patrons using other points of entry to library e-materials, such as using native apps. Native apps do not require the user to use the library website to access the information and services of the library. The PLDS annual survey does not capture usage information regarding native apps nor direct access to e-services such as Hoopla, Boopsie, OverDrive, and so on.

Pew Research shows that the use of the library website or app has generally declined for most purposes other than “read book reviews or get book recom­mendations” (+3% Change 2012–15) and “borrow or download an e-book” (+5% Change 2012–15).[1]

Similar to declining visits per capita to the library, declining website visits per capita show users are changing their de­mand for library services and the manner they access these services physically and virtually.

PL_55n3_reid_fig14 PL_55n3_reid_fig15


Fewer continuously reporting libraries (N≤203, FY2014) responded to the PLDS technology questions in FY2014. This decrease in number of respondents may have strengthened the percentage of affirmations compared to previous years (fewer respondents, with a greater por­tion of “yes” responses).

The most significant change (see fig­ure 15) is the number of Libraries (N=60) affirming that they circulate tablets compared to last year (N=40); 50% more chose “yes” in FY2014.

The number of libraries confirming they circulate e-book readers (N=63), figure 15, was four fewer than the previ­ous year, but compared to those that responded “No,” the percentage of “Yes” responses was higher in FY2014 (+1% versus FY2013).

PL_55n3_reid_fig16 PL_55n3_reid_fig17Among the continuously reporting libraries (N≤203) there were no significant changes (see figure 16) in response to the question: “Which of the following content does your library website provide?” Dif­ferences in percentages are the results of changes in number of respondents for each question part. For example, virtual reference services and community links had fewer responses, but the proportion of “yes” responses increased in FY2014.


In the analysis, the population of legal service area is an important component to understanding changes on a per capita basis. Among the continuously report­ing libraries (N=216), the larger libraries (N=57) serving population of 500,000 or greater have experienced growth in mean population of legal service area (0.82%) in FY2014 and account for most of the over­all population growth (0.86%) among all continuously reporting libraries (N=216). Small libraries serving populations less than 100,000 have experienced 0.18% increase in mean PopLSA in FY2014. Medium-sized libraries serving population of 100,000 to 499,999 have experienced a -0.28% decrease in mean PopLSA in FY2014.

PLDS Survey Summary FY2014

Overall fewer libraries reported all of the measures listed in table 4, other than population served.

For the following measures, each produced higher totals in FY2014 despite fewer reporting libraries and as a result averages were higher for each of: regis­trations, holdings, electronic circulation, other circulation, reference transactions, library visits, program attendance, num­ber of programs, interlibrary loan to and from.

The following measures produced lower overall totals in FY2014, although the averages were higher for those that reported their results for: circulation (print and CD/DVD), renewals, and in-library use of materials.


PL_55n3_reid_table4Declines in mean print circulation per capita (see figure 11) interestingly follow a similar pattern as the unit sales of print books in the US market, which declined approximately 7.49% per year since 2009.

From 2010–13 the rate of decline in unit sales of print books slowed to approximately 7.09% per year while for the continuously reporting libraries mean print book circulation per capita declined 4% per year. In January 2015, Publisher’s Weekly reported that total unit sales of print books grew by 2.4% in 2014.[2] Unit sales of print books (in thousands), 2013–2014: (2013 620,044 vs. 2014 635,093). Meanwhile in FY2014 the continuously reporting libraries increased expenditures on print materials by 0.8% (see figure 11). Coincidentally, there have been several reports in 2015 suggesting that print books sales are experiencing further increases as more consumers choose to purchase print books over e-books as a result of publishers increasing prices for electronic materials, eroding the price differential for the print version, suggest­ing possibly that consumers prefer the shareability of print books versus their electronic counterparts.

[1] John B. Horrigan, “Libraries at the Crossroads,” Pew Research Center, Sept. 15, 2015.
[2] Jim Milliot, “For Books, Print Is Back,” Publishers Weekly, Jan. 2, 2015.