Abby Ward

Role of Public Libraries in the United States

There are many different narratives about the importance and mission of public libraries in the United States.  Many Americans question whether libraries are needed in this era of instant 24-hour access to information online.  According the 2015 Pew Research Center Libraries at the Crossroads report, only 46 percent of Americans 16 years or older said that they visited a library or bookmobile in 2014.  However, libraries are still an important institution in communities in the United States.  Sixty-five percent of Americans 16 years or older say that closing the local public library would have a major impact on their community (Pew Research Center, 2015).  Survey respondents expressed desire for libraries to support local education and literacy and to provide services to job-seekers.  These survey findings suggest that there are still important functions for libraries to fill in today’s society.

Public librarians and library administrators also have their own narratives about the importance and mission of public libraries in the United States.  Public libraries allow all citizens free access to information, materials, services, and events and promote intellectual freedom in our society.  They provide computer access and free internet.  They promote literacy through books, services, and library programs.  However, the changing landscapes of library funding through government sources can change how effective libraries are at meeting their mission.

With all of these different narratives about what public libraries are or should be, it is hard to get a sense of the current state of public libraries in the United States.  Are librarians able to meet their mission?  Is the public’s opinion of the importance of public libraries in today’s society based on actual facts about library use and library services?  How is taxpayer money being spent to support libraries and their communities?  Looking at data collected about public libraries in the U.S., as well as data about the citizens of the U.S. such as population, income, unemployment, and literacy rates, can help to sift through the different narratives to see what is really going on.

The authoritative source for data on public libraries in the United States in the Public Library Survey.  The Public Library Survey is an annual survey conducted by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) with the U.S. Census as the data collection agent.  The IMLS is a federal body that regulates federal funding, grants, and research about public libraries in the United States.  The Public Library Survey includes data from over 9,000 registered public libraries in the United States.  Information that is collected from each library includes geographic location, collection numbers, library usage, library funding, library staffing, and much more.  The presentations below are built on data from the 2013 Public Library Survey summary of state statistics, along with supplementary data to analyze the current state of public libraries in the United States.

First, are Americans using their public libraries?  There are different measures that libraries use to track data about library use including circulation (total number of times library users checked out items from the library), library computer use, and program and event attendance.  In order to account for population differences between states, total circulation per capita, computer use per capita, and program attendance per capita were calculated.  There are strong relationships (with P-values less than .0004 for all three relationships) between all three measures which suggests that as one type of library use increases the others do as well.  Because of the strong relationship between all measures of library use, the analysis in this report will be simplified by using circulation per capita data to stand in for overall library use

Figure 1:

Ohio has the highest circulation per capita at just over 16 items checked out per year by each resident.  Other states with high amounts of library use include Oregon, Utah, Colorado, and Washington.  According to Figure 1, patterns of high library use occur in the Midwest and some western states.  The lowest circulation per capita state is Mississippi with only 2.7 items checked out per year per resident.  Also in the bottom ranking of library use include West Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama.  Lower library use is seen in the southern states according to the map in Figure 1.

Now that we know where libraries are being used, could it be that there is something special about these areas?  Are there more libraries in these states making accessing and using libraries easier?  Figure 2 shows that this is not the case.  There seems to be no relationship between number of libraries in a state and the amount of library use in the state.

Figure 2:

Are libraries used more in states that provide better funding for libraries?  How does funding support differ for different regions of the country?  Libraries receive most of their revenue from government sources including local municipalities and counties, state government, and federal government.  Because the funding structures differ between different states, total government revenue from all sources was analyzed and is summarized in Figure 3.

Figure 3:

The District of Columbia received that most government revenue at $71.48 per capita.  Other states with high government revenue include Ohio, Illinois, New York, and Washington.  The state that receives the least government revenue is Tennessee at $17.31 per capita.  Other states with low government revenue include Mississippi, Texas, Georgia, and West Virginia.  According to Figure 3 states in the southern United States receive less government revenue than other states.

According to the scatter plot in Figure 3 there is a strong relationship between higher library funding and greater library use.  This suggests that more library funding leads to better access to libraries and allows for more items to be checked out.  More information about specific sources of funding and the laws that regulate funding in each state is needed to analyze why some regions have chosen to fund libraries better than others.  This finding is important because it shows that when taxpayer money is used to fund libraries, the libraries are better used.

After seeing where libraries have more use and funding, we can now look to see if certain people use libraries more often than others.  Communities that Pew survey respondents and librarians believe can benefit from library services will be analyzed including low-income residents, residents lacking basic literacy skills, and the unemployed.

Libraries provide many materials, services, and events free of charge to the public.  Do lower income areas take more advantage of the free service of public libraries as they may not be able to otherwise afford them?  How does income affect library use?

Figure 4:

Using median household income data from the 2013 American Community Survey, lower income states such as Mississippi, Arkansas, West Virginia, Alabama, and New Mexico have among the lowest library use by circulation numbers.  This suggests that lower income Americans don’t necessarily take more advantage of the free materials and services provided by public libraries.  According the scatterplot in Figure 4, there is a slight relationship between higher income and greater library use.  This suggests that Americans with more income may have more leisure time and transportation options to use the free materials and services provided by the library.

Another widely celebrated function of public libraries is the promotion of literacy.  Does the data show that areas with higher library use have higher literacy rates?  Literacy rates were obtained from the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy from the National Center for Education Statistics.   The data was presented as a percent of Americans over 16 years old who lack basic prose literacy skills or who could not be tested due to language barriers.

Figure 5:

The state with the highest percent of residents lacking basic literacy skills was California with 23 percent.  Other states with a large percent of residents lacking basic literacy skills included New York, Florida, District of Columbia, and Texas.  These states may have a large percent of residents lacking basic literacy skills because they also have a larger number of foreign language speakers.  According to the scatterplot in Figure 5, there may be a relationship between lower literacy skills and lower library use.  Americans with low literacy skills may feel uncomfortable using library materials and services or be less aware of these services.  Residents that speak a different native language (which could place them in the low literacy category) may not use a library that is primarily in a language other than their own.  If one of the missions of public libraries is to promote literacy, the data suggests that the Americans who lack literacy skills are not using the library for this purpose and use libraries less often overall.

Libraries are often framed as places where people can go to use computers with free internet access.  What does the data show about computer use in libraries?  Figure 6 shows public library computer use per capita in each state.

Figure 6:

Ohio has the highest number of public library computer uses per capita at 1.85 uses per year.  Other states with high computer use include South Dakota, Washington, Wyoming, and Montana.  Hawaii has the lowest computer use per capita at .492 uses.  Other states with low computer use include West Virginia, Delaware, Texas, and Arkansas.

One of the most cited activities of public library computer users is to search for jobs.  Are the states with high unemployment the same as the states with high computer use?

Figure 7:

According to data from 2013 State Unemployment rates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics summarized in Figure 7, there is not a clear relationship between unemployment and library computer usage. This data suggests that libraries are not viewed as a place where you can use computers to apply for jobs.  Other possible reasons for the lack of library computer use in areas with high unemployment is lack of resources to get to the library, lack of knowledge of library resources, or lack of library computers in areas with high unemployment.

Another reason why people might use public library computers is because they may not have the resources to own their own computer or device or cannot afford to pay for internet access.  Do libraries in states with lower median income see an increase in computer use?

Figure 8:

Using income data from the 2013 American Community Survey shown in Figure 8, this is not the case.  While the relationship is not strong, a few states with lower median income also have lower library computer use, such as West Virginia, Arkansas, and Tennessee.

Overall, data on public library use in the United States does not resemble the narratives that people have about public libraries.  It is important for policy makers to understand how public libraries are related to other social issues in their communities in order to determine how best to distribute taxpayer money to combat these issues.  Libraries provide free materials and services as well as access to computers and the internet, but low income areas who might benefit from this the most do not have high library use.  Libraries aspire to be places where the unemployed receive help to search for a job, but the data does not show higher usage in areas with high unemployment.  The data does show that areas with better literacy skills do use the library more often which suggests that libraries promote literacy in their communities.  However there could be other issues affecting why low literacy residents do not use libraries such as foreign language speakers not feeling comfortable with library materials in a different language.  Library funding is also variable throughout the United States so different libraries start with more resources in order to meet their mission than others.  As the Pew Research Center report suggests, public libraries in the United States really do seem to be at a crossroads of what they aspire to be and what the data shows is their current role in society.