With a hat tip to Larry T. Nix on the ALA Library History Round Table [LHRT Membership Listserv].
Book Circulation Per U.S. Public Library User Since 1856
Douglas A. Galbi, Senior Economist Federal Communications Commission
Galbi neatly summarizes ~150 years of varying public library circulation statistics in 11 tables which cover overlapping years of slightly differently calculated statistics. The differing calculations include “circulations per user per year,” “percent of juvenile users,” “circulation per person served,” “library circulation per capita,” and “median book circulation per registered user.” While Galbi does provide some speculations on the “stability” of user borrowing, there are interesting trends or patterns in the data. Note that each table uses a different measurement algorithm, so the absolute numbers in the tables do not necessarily match exactly.
Table 1 data show that from 1908 through 1946 library (where “library” is large public libraries in various cities of >200K population) “circulation per user” swelled from ~15 in 1908 to a high of ~23 in the early and middle of the Great Depression and then declined to ~16 in 1946 (Table 1).
Table 2 data show that from 1939 to 1983 “circulation per person served” (where “person served” was calculated as a percent of the then total U.S. population) declined from 5.3 (33% of which was juvenile circulations) in 1939 to a low of ~3.4 in the late 1940s-early1950s (but with a swelling into the 40%s of juvenile circulation), rising back to ~5 through the early 1960s (with juvenile circulation reaching 50% in these years), “book circulations per user” continue to rise to almost 6 in 1967 and starts a slow slide to ~5.5 in the mid-1970s (as juvenile circulation plummets from 50% in 1967 to 34% in 1975), by 1983 “book circulation per user” slides to 4.8 (as juvenile circulations hold around 33% of total circulation). Another interesting data point is the “percent of U.S. Population served;” in 1939 ~60% of the U.S. population was served by a public library, swelling to ~75% in 1950, before declining to ~70% in 1956, and then steadily climbing to ~96% by 1983.
Table 3 highlights Colorado circulation per state population from 1920 to 2000 (mostly steady growth except small slide in the 70’s) ~2 in 1920 to ~9 in 2000. You go, Colorado!
Table 4 highlights the median circulation per user in sets of U.S. cities growing from ~14 in 1890 to ~18 in 1920, then a decline to ~16 at the next data point in 1970.
Table 5 data and the related graph show no strong trend lines, according to Galbi; however, I see a very macro trend of declining library uses from 1856 through 2004. Since the 1868 “high” point of ~19 books per user per year circulated, the trend line decreases with surges during the Great Depression and the late 60’s recession. In 2004 the number of circulations per user per year is ~half (9) of the 1868 high (19). The trend may possibly have cyclical elements, inversely tracking a few years behind the perceived economic health of the U.S, but over all seems to be significantly lower over time.
The last 6 tables are used to explain certain assumptions and estimates made in the data of the above referenced tables, and the explanations make sense to me on my superficial gloss over them.
“But what does that mean?” says I. Here’s what I think is important to take away:
- During “Major War Years” (WWI, WWII) library circulation (and, possibly, use?) declines
- Possibly people ran out of time for the luxury of leisure reading?
- During times of hardship (Depression, late 60’s - late 70’s recession) library circulation increases
- Possibly people had much more free time for the luxury of leisure reading and possibly took advantage of the escapism provided by books?
- The Baby Boomers seem to be a generation of heavy readers
- Which they learned in childhood, checking out up to half of all books circulated at the time?
- The late Boomers and children of Boomers do not seem to be such heavy readers
- Did the Boomers not take their kids to the library?
- The advent of television in the 50’s may have sucked away the adult reading population
- The heavy juvenile percentages of this period may indicate this?
- The advent of television targeting juveniles in the late 60’s / early 70’s may have sucked away the juvenile reading population
- Rapid rate of decline of juvenile percentages of this period may indicate this?
- Juvenile collections are very important to the future of public libraries
- Habits and patterns learned in childhood often remain throughout life
I find Galbi’s study interesting, especially when juxtaposing it with the 2006 Public Libraries and the Internet study I mentioned in a few posts.
What do you think about the data and my conclusions from it? Am I in the ballpark? Have I wandered off into the swamps and jungles of conflation and bad logic? What say you?