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New Report Shows Trends in U.S. Library Service

January 22, 2013 ET

By Susan Hildreth
Director, IMLS

The FY 2010 report on Public Libraries in the United States  shows the vitality of public library service in America. Public libraries are anchors in their communities, serving a broad constituency with both traditional services and new ones that reflect the changing needs of their populations.  According to the report, public libraries served 297.6 million people.  With a total U.S. population of more than 308.7 million in that year, it’s easy to see how relevant these community institutions are.

The report is particularly compelling in documenting the importance of libraries to the nation’s children: children’s materials comprise a full one-third of the 2.46 billion materials circulated and 61.7 percent of libraries’ 3.75 million public programs are designed for children.

And the relevance of libraries in our digital age is reinforced with the data.  Since 2003 the number of e-books in the nation’s public libraries has tripled and in the last ten years the number of public access computers has doubled.

The report reveals other trends. There are decreases in total operating revenue and expenditures for public libraries. While public libraries in America are doing more with less, we see local communities bearing an increasing portion of total public funding for libraries.

Now in its 23rd year, the Public Library Report provides the most comprehensive data from the nation’s 17,078 public library outlets.  It covers collection sizes, operating revenue and expenditures, and staffing, as well as performance indicators, such as public Internet computers, circulation, reference transactions and library visits.  I’m happy to report that for the first time this year the report goes beyond the national level analysis to look at trends at the local, regional, and state levels. Our online roll-out of the report includes  state-by-state profiles that will make it more useful than ever.

We are always pleased to see the variety of ways the findings of the report are used by researchers, members of the media and Congress, and by other public agencies. The PLS provides a universe base file for many surveys of the library community, such as the Public Funding and Technology Access Study and the U.S. Impact Study, which was funded by IMLS and the Gates Foundation.  The findings are used for independent library ratings, such as the Library Journal’s LJ index of “America’s Star Libraries” and Hennen's American Public Library Ratings. The data is used in a variety of library locator and search and compare tools, including our own Public Library Locator and the Department of Labor’s American Job Center Locator Service.  The data is also used for a variety of local, regional and national community indicator initiatives, including HUD's Performance Based Planning Measures developed by the Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities.

We hope library advocates will continue to find new ways to use the data to show the relevance of America’s public libraries, that policymakers will use them to guide their decisions, and that the public will see the importance of continued support at the local, state, and federal levels.