February 17, 2018

Latest IMLS Public Libraries Survey Sees Continued Rise in Program Attendance Nationwide

On June 18, The Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) released the results of its 2011 Public Libraries in the United States Survey. While the survey is undertaken every year, the latest numbers from 2011 represent the study’s first attempt to use multivariate statistical modelling to take a deep dive into library circulation and visitation numbers. The results of that analysis verify that when communities invest in libraries, those libraries see increased use.

Since IMLS took the reins of the annual survey from the Department of Education in 2007, it has continually added new wrinkles and metrics to the report, seeking to better understand and analyze the reams of data gathered every year, said Carlos Manjarrez, IMLS director of operations, research and evaluation. Previous years saw geocoding added to data so that libraries could be pinpointed geographically, followed by the addition of location analysis, which improved the ability of data analysts to look beyond the aggregate numbers the survey collects and ferret out developing trends in urban versus rural libraries.

This year’s introduction of multivariate analysis allows IMLS researchers to control for multiple variables—like location, size, and level of municipal investments—while analyzing data, painting a clearer picture of just won hat impact each individual variable has. That new level of analysis, said Manjarrez, was a key to providing a more nuanced understanding of the survey data, including insights into why per-capita visitation at U.S. public libraries experienced a 3.6 percent decline compared with the agency’s prior survey.

“We thought it was important to introduce multivariate analysis, because we wanted to dig deeper and understand what’s behind the drops in visitation over the last two years,” Manjarrez told LJ. “That lets us identify which of those things are most strongly associated with things like visitation and attendance of library programs.”

The answer won’t surprise many librarians. According to Manjarrez, high funding levels and lots of staffers correlate positively with high visitation rates, circulation, and program attendance, while cuts to funding are associated with decreased use of public libraries. “When you invest, it really does have an impact on visitations and circulation. That’s something this survey couldn’t say before.”

Manjarrez also noted that the data showed a slight correlation between investment in electronic resources and a drop in in-person visits. That makes sense—after all, one goal of investing in services like online access to databases and book renewals is to help save users a trip to the library. Unfortunately, the IMLS survey doesn’t yet collect the electronic visitor metrics that would be needed to confirm that a decline in on-site visits was offset by a rise in electronic resource usage. That’s because metrics of digital use can be hard to standardize and collect, requiring cooperation from multiple vendors who may report usage statistics differently.

Though those figures are hard to collect, Manjarrez admitted they mark a significant hole in the survey—one that needs to be fixed to keep it relevant in the future. “We need to address this,” he told LJ. “It’s 2014. It’s not as if electronic services are suddenly going to disappear.”

Among the figures that stood out to Manjarrez, the steady increase of attendance at library programs is a trend that holds across libraries large and small, urban and rural. Since 2004, the survey shows that attendance at programs has increased more than thirty percent nationwide, with libraries reporting a total of 89 million attendees at 3.8 million programs in 2011. While electronic resources may help people skip a trip to the library, programs can be a reason for them to make a visit. “I think it signals a real transition…in terms of engaging learners in different ways,” Manjarrez said of the new prevalence of programming.

Anecdotally, Manjraez suggested the increase in the importance of library programs from job hunting classes to parenting workshops also suggests that partnerships with local nonprofits and government organizations are becoming more and more essential to libraries. Since programs can be effort intensive to set up and run, being able to pool resources with other organizations can make things easier on librarians. That hints at the notion that broader public service programs are reflective of libraries across the country becoming more connected with local partners and their communities.

Ian Chant About Ian Chant

Ian Chant is a former editor at LJ and a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Scientific American and Popular Mechanics and on NPR.

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