How many books are checked out of public libraries per year?
April 21, 2011 3:37 PM   Subscribe

On average, how many books are checked out of a US public library, per year? Has there been a decline or an incline books being checked out in the last couple of years?

I'm doing a bit of research for myself on the state of the US public library system. While I have found a wealth of information on this American Library Study report, "The Condition of U.S. Libraries: Trends, 1999 - 2009" I can't seem to find how many books are checked out, on average, per library.

The report defines circulation as "reference transactions, use of public‐use Internet computers, use of electronic materials (e.g., databases), and children’s program attendance", which shows that there has been an uptick in circulation. However, I suspect that if we were to just look at how many books are being checked out, there would be a downward trend. At first, I though that "reference transactions" were it, but it turns it isn't.

Given the fact that Metafilter is filled with so many awesome librarians, I figured someone here would know the answer to my question!
posted by carpyful to Grab Bag (8 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It looks like the ALA's Public Library Data Service has the info you need. See if your local library subscribes to it, and ask them?
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 3:49 PM on April 21, 2011

The Insitute of Museum and Library Services' "Service Trends in U.S. Public Libraries, 1997-2007," which looks like it should have covered this question, has this to say at the end:

"Clarification: On page 5 of the original version of this research brief, we wrote “…people are visiting public libraries more and checking out more books than they were at the beginning of the study.” This updated version replaces “books” with “materials,“ since we are unable to disaggregate circulation of books from overall circulation using the Public Libraries Survey. We apologize for this oversight."

Rules out one source, anyhow...
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:50 PM on April 21, 2011

Ah, here we go, somebody has already gone ahead and analysed some of the 2010 data.

Characteristics and Trends in the Public Library Data Service 2010 Statistical Report. Table 1 seems to have a number for you to cite for the aggregate "print circulation" (which probably also includes magazines, and may or may not include "children's circulation").

Short version: if you want definitive answers, you probably want to track down the database versions of the PLDS's survey results, and massage the data yourself. It looks like the most recent year's edition is around $250 for the database, so I would definitely lean towards finding some sort of institutional access.

Conversely, if instead of aggregate nationwide data, you want to just cherrypick a representative library's circulation, I would ask your local library system. Or, hell, just shoot the moon and call up the New York Public library or something.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 4:03 PM on April 21, 2011

This 2010 Quotable Facts brochure from the ALA and this paper of 2008 stats has some info that you can use to figure out the average number of books checked out to adults. In September 2008, 68% of Americans (207.4 million) held public library cards. At an average of 7 books checked out from public libraries per year per person, that would be 1.45 billion books checked out of public libraries a year. There are 16,604 public libraries in the U.S. including branches, so that puts the average number of books checked out per year at each library at 87,437.

That's interesting, considering the library system I work for circulated 1,404,000 items last year. With 54,000 card holders, that's an average of 26 items per person per year.
posted by jenny76 at 4:23 PM on April 21, 2011

N.B. - the circ stats for my library system include DVDs and CDs.
posted by jenny76 at 4:25 PM on April 21, 2011

Other groups that collect public library statistics: Hennen's, a small private company, and the feds at the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

As others have said, 'circulation' numbers typically include DVDs, CDs and other non-print media. If you want to cherrypick from one library system, the one that I work at has seen slow-but-steady growth in book circulation in the last five years. We've seen much more growth in computer use and DVD circulation, but book checkouts have increased for each of the last five years (and, if data through the end of March is any indication, they'll increase this year as well).
posted by box at 4:48 PM on April 21, 2011

I think the placement of the charts in that report you linked may have lead you to an incorrect conclusion. In libraries, "circulation" means materials checked out. It doesn't include reference transactions (talking to a librarian, asking a question), use of computers, or program attendance. In the report, the chart on page 21 with the red and blue bars shows circulation (check-out) rates at public libraries steadily increasing from 2002-2007. The text below that chart actually describes the multi-colored chart on page 22.
posted by donnagirl at 8:21 PM on April 21, 2011

Thanks so much for all the responses! I guess this isn't as cut and dry as I had hoped!

All this data was really useful, although finding trend data seems like it'll require some dough :x

Thanks again for the help, Metafilter!
posted by carpyful at 10:21 PM on April 23, 2011

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