Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Fun with Statistics

According to a Reuters article reporting a 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll, Americans are “tepid about libraries.” More people try to buy locally produced food than regularly use their library, though it seems public libraries have slightly more support than George W. Bush would were he running against Obama for President, and that’s something I guess.

From the article: “libraries, apparently, are on the wane. Two thirds of people said they never go to the library, or do so only once or twice a year.”

What are we to make of that?

I guess one question is what makes anyone think libraries are “on the wane” when there was no comparative historical data. It could be that two thirds of Americans have never used public libraries much.

We could also reverse the phrasing of the report. One third of Americans say they go to their public libraries more than once or twice a year!

Put that way, it doesn’t sound much better.

I’m wondering if those statistics support what the ALA is always saying about how library use is increasing and what a bad idea it is to cut library funding during a recession when so many more people use libraries, etc.

I mean, if two thirds of potential library users rarely or never bother to go to the library, that’s not exactly proof that library use is on the rise.

It turns out that a Harris Poll Quorum created for the ALA this year says pretty much the same thing.

When asked how many times people had used their library in the past year, 36% said zero and 29% said 1-5. Thus, about two thirds of the respondents never or rarely use the library.

There’s comparative data from 2010 and 2011 that shows library use actually declined, at least among those polled. “More than 25 times” went from 13% to 12% and “11 to 25 times” from 13% to 11%, while “1 to 5 times” went from 27% to 29%. That would seem  to indicate a dropping off of high library use.

It does seem that library visits are increasing in number, though the visits might all be from the same people. According to the Condition of U.S. Libraries report, library visits increase 3-4% per year. That report plays up the availability of library services, but either misrepresents information or makes outright false claims.

The chart on page 24 makes the increase visits seem like a steep rise, but that’s just because they put the baseline at 1.1 million visits and uses a truncated scale to compare data for every 50,000 visits, the average rise each year. Thus, we step up a level each year. Put the baseline at zero and make it every 100,000 visits, and the climb would look considerably less steep.

That same report has this paragraph as well:

American households reported using their public libraries more often in 2009

  • 25.4 million Americans reported using their public library more than 20 times in the last year, up from 20.3 million households in 2006.
  • The average number of in‐person public library visits rose to 12.7 in 2009 from 9.1 in 2006.
  • Use of the public library by computer (from home, work or school) doubled from 2006 to 2009 (6 times per year, up from 2.9 times in 2006).
  • 22% of Americans visited their public library by computer from home, office or school more often in the last 6 months. This percentage may seem low, but it is about 51 million Americans.

After borrowing library materials, Americans rank entertainment (35%) and educational purposes, such as for homework or taking a class (28%), as the top two reasons for using the library. That’s more than 145.8 million Americans.

I love the line “the percentage may seem low.” No, it IS low. And if that’s the case, then only about 11% of Americans used there library 20 times or more in the last year.

If someone could explain how the data given adds up to “more than 145.8 million Americans,” they would be more insightful than whoever put together this report.

That paragraph references a 2009 household survey by KRC Research that’s on the ALA website, which doesn’t support the 145.8 million Americans claim. Question 4 about ranking uses of the library included the following direction:  “ASK ONLY IF USED LIBRARY IN PERSON, BY TELEPHONE OR BY COMPUTER IN THE PAST YEAR”.

In that survey, 42% of Americans didn’t use the library at all in the last year, but whoever wrote the Condition of U.S. Libraries report made the claim of 145.8 million as if all Americans had used the library in the past year, when really the 35% and 28% figures were percentages of the subset of the 58% of those surveyed who had used the library at all in the previous year.

Based on the numbers, only 134 million people had used the library at all in the previous year. According to the Condition of Libraries report, 145.8 million of those 134 million used the library primarily for entertainment or education.

Someone is confused, that’s for sure.

According to that same survey, 68% of Americans used the library either not at all or fewer than five times in the past year, which pretty much accords with the Harris poll and the 60 Minutes/ Vanity Fair poll.

Rising usage statistics seem to have nothing to do with any increase in the actual number of users of libraries, though based on how the ALA handles statistics, probably no one has figured that out yet.

Regardless, even if Americans are “tepid about libraries,” it doesn’t matter. The KRC survey indicates that Americans overwhelmingly agree that libraries are important to give everyone a chance to succeed and are critical to our democracy.

Thus, even the majority of people who rarely or never use libraries still think they’re useful and important. That helps to explain that while the majority of people have little use for public libraries, my first prediction for 2011 will come true: The vast majority of libraries will remain open.



  1. The lack of credibility in library statistics was one of the first things I noticed when I began studying libraries. It has deeply shaken my esteem & trust for the enterprise.

    • I noticed the same thing when I started thumbing through what passed for library research back in library school. I always wondered what the root cause was.

      Are we just not that good at numbers since libraries draw predominately from the BA pool?

      Is there a problem with the way research is taught in library school?

      Is there a lack of good peer review that’s letting shoddy research slip through the cracks?

      I can’t believe that there’s some vast library research conspiracy to fudge numbers and draw questionable conclusions. Looking into the root cause of the faulty research would be an interesting pursuit.

    • Andrew, my sense is there are many factors at work here.

      1) Like you, I’ve found much of the content produced by the library community to be of low quality/relevance and wonder whether library folk have simply become inured to it.
      * If library scholarship and MLS programs lack rigor, as many within the profession have noted, does this acculturate people entering the profession to accept and produce sub-standard work?
      * Does the fact that so many bad industry reports get widely circulated and cited in library publications reinforce the low standards? (Two pretty recent examples: COSLA’s eBook Feasibility Study for Public Libraries addresses one of the most significant developments in society and the library world via a comic book. I still can’t believe this was offered for adult consumption. The OCLC’s Perceptions of Libraries, 2010: Context and Community weighed in at over a hundred pages – much of it commonplace information (the rise of social media & eBooks, the Great Recession) that wasn’t worth restating because only people in a deep coma would be unaware of it. Also, many of the reports conclusions & statements were contradicted by the stats presented. A sub-head on page 40 is typical. It states “Americans trust themselves, search engines and libraries”. This statement sits alongside stats that only 1% of survey respondents considered a librarian a trusted source and 0% used a library website to start an internet search. C’mon. In more capable hands, the data collected here could have informed an incisive 15 page report.)
      * Library staffers have been questioning the usefulness of their statistical practices for a hundred years or more. And yet the beat goes on… so they probably just make the tick marks and tally the numbers because it’s easier (and safer) to go along rather than question the system.

      2) Another factor is that library culture tends to “roll its own” and (IMO) this mitigates practitioners’ ability to successfully apply lessons and techniques from other domains. Libraries rely on consultants from within the profession or librarians claiming expertise in technology or marketing when they might be better served by professionals with specific training & experience in commercial or other non-profit endeavors. This would, I believe, accrue toward better operations and increased skill level for things like data collection & reporting, etc.

      3) Spin is a big factor, as Midwest SciTech & Noutopian have noted. Most library stats fall apart the minute you look at ’em, as AL has done in a few posts and I did with gate count & library cardholder stats. I’ll bet most everyone who pumps these numbers out, from the ALA, OCLC & IMLS on down to the library director at the smallest public library knows they’re weak. They may perpetuate them because it’s the path of least resistance and also because they understand they don’t carry much weight. There’s a widespread and unarticulated appreciation, I think, for what the AL closed this post with: people support libraries based on feeling versus their own usage or library stats. Libraries have been sustained by this for a long time, though I’m doubtful the pattern will hold beyond this decade.

  2. Midwest SciTech Librarian says:

    It also has a lot to do with phrasing. After all, according to the study, 2/3 of the population have made use of their library in the past year. That sounds better doesn’t it? It’s all in the spin.

  3. noutopianlibrarian says:

    While not unique to the profession, library statistics are geared primarily toward PR in my experience. This is not the natural handmaiden of factuality.

  4. FWIW, I have never used my local fired department, community health clinic, or tourist bureau.

    No longer having young children, I also don’t make it over to the public schools.

    My visits to the local police department are significantly less than 1 per year — and that last ticket was totally bogus, I swear!

    And yet for some reason I continue to think that these services actually add significant value to my community, well worth my tax money, just because they exist for the people who DO use them!

    This must be why I’m not smart enough to get a regular column in LJ.

    • Hapax – I’ve heard this argument before and some of it doesn’t ring true for me. The difference between safety and health services is that part of their success is assessed by people not using them. We say they’re doing good jobs when crime & arson rates are low, fire hazards are removed and disease isn’t widespread. It’s a good thing when we don’t need to use them.

      Our public school system has a large measure of “pay-it-forward” baked into the social contract. People without children subsidized your public school education (and mine) and now we’re doing the same for others. Moreover, many of the people we educate through our public schools will provide the services we’ll need most in our old age (healthcare, sound financial management, good governance) and it’s in our personal best interest to invest in them.

      This argument is tenuous for libraries that fumble when substantiating usage and don’t appear oriented toward assessing & articulating impact.

      As a society, we consider our public schools essential and will continue working to improve them. My concern is that we don’t view our libraries in the same light and will let them fade away rather than work to understand and remedy the complex factors that constrain them.

    • librarEwoman says:

      The sad thing is, I think people DO consider it a good thing when they don’t have to use libraries. If they don’t have to use libraries, it’s a good bet that they’re wealthy enough to afford all of their informational and entertainment needs on their own dollar, on top of what little they pay in taxes to support libraries. From what I observe, people who are low to moderate income earners use the library much more often than those who have a middle to upper class income. Why come to the library to use books and computers with other people’s germs on them if you can afford to buy your own books, computer with high speed internet connection, and as many mobile devices and eBooks as you want? If you’re a rich extrovert, you might still come to the library once and a while for social interaction or a free program of some kind. But then again, it’s uncomfortable for rich people to be exposed to those of us of the lower social classes, so they’d probably find more comfortable venues for socializing.

    • Yep, and the library comes and saves you in infotainment emergencies even if you don’t ask them to.

  5. The stats themselves may or may not be bad news, but the fact that an organization of research experts can’t respond with a better argument really looks awful.

  6. MMMM…me thinks some have forgotten the blog about Amazon and kindle taking down the libraries. But then with the low standards for those awarded an MLS what can one expect.

    • Isn’t methinks one word? yes it is. I would also like to think that readers of professional blogs and lit might be the c o t c that the other library lied to you about.

  7. Joyce,

    Would you happen to be the same Joyce who posted in response to “New Grads on the Market” on November 18?

    If so, hello! You have a very distinctive style. How’s your daughter’s job search going?

    If not, you’ve got a separated-at-birth Internet twin and she’s every bit as pleasant as you are! :D

  8. Having continued to look into this issue I came across “Patron Profiles,” a new LJ publication thing for showing library impact. Of course I can’t see it from work because it’s useful and our filter won’t stand for that, but the profile here seems promising in concept. Has anyone looked at this? Is it useful?

    • Hi Anna – another long reply; hope it’s helpful. The Patron Profiles site exudes some of the same characteristics I described in my reply to Andrew.

      1) It is inward looking, which is very limiting and leads to false conclusions. Libraries are already very familiar with what their patrons want, and they do a good job of delivering. People wouldn’t remain patrons if this was untrue. Patrons use libraries because they value existing services, so relying on them as ‘trend’ indicators is like driving with your rearview mirror as a guide.

      2) Consolidating national data will result in information that probably won’t serve individual libraries very well. Libraries make this mistake all the time; they rely on gross data when much more refinement is needed to provide meaningful insights. For example, the site says it will provide “emerging attitudes and trends in the young adult crossover market”. There is no such market; it’s a whole bunch of niche markets with key similarities and key differences. Notwithstanding the fact that YA patrons are a small segment of the YA population, how closely would a profile of YAs in my community match the one in yours? In central MA, we are:
      – suburban communities
      – working/lower-middle class
      – technologically connected; virtually everyone has home computer & internet connection, plenty of tech gadgets; free wi-fi in most public and retail establishments
      – probably not diverse in terms of race/ethnicity (don’t have stats, this is a personal observation)
      – jobless rates among the lowest in the country
      – literacy rates among the highest in the country
      – education levels among the highest in the country
      – low crime rates
      – lower immigrant populations than in other parts of the country
      – electorate votes Democratic

      To chart a meaninful course forward, the library community needs to craft complex user personas to match the complexity of the communities it serves. And it doesn’t need to “roll its own” data and all the analyses. Skads of non-profit and for-profit entities produce high-quality metrics on this stuff and they’re freely available or could be purchased/negotiated for reasonable price. Part of my initial disappointment when I first began studying the library community was how little it relies on diverse, authoritative sources for its own management, operations & planning. Kinda like the plumber’s sink always being clogged, I guess.

      3) The site is created by a for-profit entity (MediaSource, publisher of LJ) as a sponsorship service for its advertisers. This is an important consideration in your assessment.

      4) And lastly, I’d offer my personal observation that with digital initiatives, the library ecosystem is comprised of great starters. If you view the initiatives 6mos after launch, the results are not-so-great. These are but a few examples: GeekTheLibrary that launched with some fanfare in mid-2009 and effectively hasn’t updated content/campaign since. PrivacyRevolution is a slightly different story. It went from a good idea at launch to an awful implementation.

  9. According to the Harris Poll, the number of people who didn’t use the library at all remained static. We saw a 3% drop in the number of people who used the library more than 11 times. There’s also an additional 2% of the population who used library between 1 and 5 times and 1% more who didn’t know or refused to answer. So those are the categories the losses migrated to.

    Taking the whole percentage points at face value, that’s about 6 million people who cut back on their library use by at least half and 3 million who polled as more ignorant and/or belligerent than last year.

    Assuming that the 3-4% increase in library visits has held steady since the publication of the Condition of US Libraries report in 2009, that leads to a slight mystery. The population increase between 2010 and 2011 was only about 0.90%, so that doesn’t explain it. The most active users of libraries would have had to see an increase in library visits of about 6% to balance out the increase in library visits with the decrease in individual active users.

    According to my interpretation of the data, this means that a 1% increase in ignorant and/or belligerent patrons naturally leads to an average 6% increase in library visits per patron. Therefore, the most ignorant and/or belligerent patrons are also those with a disproportionately high number of library visits.

    I am now formulating a formal poll of public service library workers to bear out this interpretation. Based on past anecdotal data gathered from this source, I am optimistic that the responses will support my theory.

  10. Soren Faust says:

    I think Joyce’s daughter isn’t the only one who needs a job. Joyce. Have you thought about employment for yourself? I mean, it must get tiresome following a professional blog about a profession you’re not even a part of.

  11. Well,

    I tried to point to my interpretation of this, but it has either been booted as spam or my work computer is messing up. Either way, here’s the deal:

    15 percent of cardholders equals approx 20% of USERS that drive your real circ and stats. So, in San Antonio, that’s 158,949 people that are “heavy users”. That’s 10.5% of the total population uses the library on (at least) a bi-weekly basis. These people- even assuming that they only check out 1 item each every 25 times a year- account for 3,973,725 circs/year. That’s 62% of the library’s total circulation (6,374,109 in the year of these numbers)! Also, from the same source, that means they account for 93% of library visits (4,267,488 total)!!!! This is from a minority of cardholders/users and 11% of the population!

  12. My favorite part is that 30% of people who try to consciously buy locally grown food is considered “favoring” while 33% of people using the library more than a couple of times per year is considered “waning” (from what I’m not sure).

  13. I would also like to note that the online users who took the poll on the website claimed that 26% used the library once a week and 21% once a month which equates to 47% (with 70% visiting at least once a year), maybe they just surveyed the wrong people.

  14. I Like Books says:

    Are librarians good with numbers? Well, just look at the math and statistics requirements for getting the degree.

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