As with last year’s edition of the Star Library ratings and the LJ Index, this year’s edition was affected dramatically by the continued tightening of public sector budgets as the Great Recession officially wound down but hard times remained. This data file reflects service reported for FY09 (most often, Calendar 2009, July 2008–June 2009, or October 2008–September 2009). According to the National Bureau of Economic Research—the official arbiter of the beginning and end of a recession—the Great Recession began in December 2007 and ended in June 2009.
To assess the impact of the latest recession on public library service outputs, we compared change over two one-year intervals, the 2006–07 IMLS data year (the first two years of the LJ Index as well as a prerecession interval) and the 2008–09 data year (the latest one-year interval for the index, which marked the end of the recession).
For circulation per capita, the differences between the two years for libraries scored in almost all expenditures categories were dramatic. The only spending category for which circulation per capita was lower more recently was $30 million–plus. For all other categories, the recession “bump” in circulation per capita is often two to three times the prerecession increase. For two categories ($400,000–$999,999 and $200,000–$399,999), the recession brought increases in circulation per capita, when that statistic had actually declined during the earlier interval. And for the lowest spending category ($10,000–$49,999), the recession helped to maintain the level of circulation per capita, when it had fallen earlier by the largest percentage for any declining category.
As with circulation per capita, for libraries in most spending categories, mean visits per capita rose during the recession, when it had risen by a lower percentage before that economic crisis or had even dropped. For three spending categories ($5 million–$9.9 million, $400,000–$999,999, and $10,000–$49,999), prerecession declines in visits per capita turned to gains. For three other spending categories ($10 million–$29.9 million, $1 million–$4.9 million, and $200,000–$399,999), recession-interval increases were 2.5 to five times higher than prerecession gains. The two exceptions were two of the smaller spending categories ($100,000–$499,999 and $50,000–$99,999), for which visits per capita rose at a lower rate during the recession than before it.
That similar patterns were not demonstrated by public Internet computer use and program attendance may reflect a number of factors that can make those per capita statistics less comparable from year to year. In particular, the number of libraries reporting each statistic and—in the case of Internet computer use—changes in data collection or reporting methodologies as a new and challenging statistic became established and reduced reliance on library computers as users began turning to Wi-Fi access via their own devices. Interestingly, as the earlier 2006–09 data comparison illustrated, for most spending categories between the 2006 and 2009 data years, the percent change in these two newer measures outstripped the two older measures.
Together, these findings indicate the power of looking at this data in new ways and reinforce the need for ongoing improvement in reporting levels and the creation of new output measures that reflect the changes our libraries are going through. They also provide a new frame for looking at what libraries bring to their communities at every level, in every economic environment.