January 22, 2022

Statistics: New Study Looks at the Changing Demands of the Urban Public Library in 15 U.S. Cities

From the Pew Charitable Trusts:

A new report from The Pew Charitable Trusts finds that urban libraries are experiencing increased demands for an ever-widening array of services, due in part to the poor economy. At the same time, libraries’ funding from local governments has been cut, leaving them with fewer resources, staff and hours with which to meet these new challenges.

To understand how urban libraries are dealing with this pressure, the report from Pew’s Philadelphia Research Initiative compares library systems in Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Brooklyn, Charlotte, Chicago, Columbus (Ohio), Detroit, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Queens (NY), San Francisco and Seattle. (It also examines Philadelphia’s library system in greater depth to gauge how well it is meeting residents’ needs.)

Among the 15 cities studied, the number of library visits rose on average six percent from 2005-2011, while circulation of print and CD/DVD materials increased by 18 percent. Visits grew during that period by more than 20 percent in Detroit, Baltimore, Seattle and Atlanta. Circulation of materials increased by 50 percent in Seattle, and more than 30 percent in San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, Atlanta and Brooklyn.

The report, “The Library in the City: Changing Demands and A Challenging Future” (53 pages; PDF), finds that libraries now often have a “shadow mandate” that involves supporting and complementing the work of other public agencies, effectively turning them into multipurpose community centers. Due partly to their role as society’s default provider of free computer and Internet access, they are helping residents—including those with limited incomes and educations—to find jobs, obtain health information, and connect to government services and benefits. They also are offering business services, tax assistance, safe after-school havens for children, and places where immigrants can learn English. They do all of this while still lending books, CDs and DVDs.

Direct to Additional Material Including Informative Interactive Graphic

Key Findings

  • Among the cities studied, Seattle, San Francisco and Columbus have the highest per capita number of library visitors and circulation.
  • Some of the drivers of city libraries’ increased popularity include investments in children’s programming, GED instruction, and central library renovations to make them more welcoming.
  • The number of library computers available per 10,000 residents ranges from 3.5 in Phoenix to 17.1 in Seattle. Most libraries report that the demand for computer time far exceeds the supply.
  • Most of the libraries studied rely heavily on local government funding. Eleven of them get more than 70 percent of their annual income from their city or county.
  • Library spending per capita is highest in San Francisco ($101) and lowest in Phoenix ($24).
  • Budget cuts have led to reductions in library hours and staff in almost every library system studied. A number of cities proposed eliminating library branches, but public protests stopped those plans in many cases.

Findings: Free Library of Philadelphia

  • Philadelphians use their libraries less than their counterparts in most of the 14 other urban communities studied.
  • On a per capita basis, the Free Library of Philadelphia is below average in circulation and visits, even though it ranks relatively high in terms of branches per capita. Its recent growth in both circulation and visits has been in line with the other cities.
  • Use of library computers in Philadelphia has risen by 80 percent in the last six years; the Free Library ranks 11th of the 15 systems in the number of public-access computers per capita.
  • One factor contributing to Philadelphians’ relatively low use of their libraries has been the extraordinary number of times that branches have experienced temporary, unscheduled closings in the past few years.
  • Overall library spending in Philadelphia, at $43 per resident in 2011, is slightly below average for the communities studied. Between 2008 and 2010, when municipal budgets were hit hard by the recession, the Free Library experienced larger cutbacks than many of its counterparts.
  • In a Philadelphia Research Initiative survey of Philadelphia residents, 51 percent visited a library at least once in the past 12 months, and 30 percent of all respondents went at least once a month.
  • Among library users, 57 percent report having taken a child to the library. Ninety-one percent say the library’s role as a safe space for children is a “very important” function.

Direct to Full Text Report (53 pages; PDF)

About Gary Price

Gary Price (gprice@mediasourceinc.com) is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at Ask.com, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.