May 17, 2022

New IMLS Research Brief: “The Use and Cost of Public Library Materials: Trends Before the COVID-19 Pandemic”

From the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS):

The Institute of Museum and Library Services released today The Use and Cost of Public Library Materials: Trends Before the COVID-19 Pandemic, a research brief that explores trends of physical and electronic collections expenditures and circulation, including comparisons among subgroups by locale and population size served.

“Online librarianship and the nature of the library as a civic and community place is an ever-changing landscape,” said IMLS Director Crosby Kemper. “As you’ll see in the brief, the growth and use of electronic books, online databases, and technology has continued to increase through the years, making digital collections a resource libraries continue to heavily invest in. We see that the focus on patron health and welfare and community development and cohesion are more critical than ever. And, as always for public libraries, the importance of reading as the basic skill and best support for improving people’s lives remains a constant in American society.”

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Research questions answered in the brief include:

  1. Does the trend in overall circulation per person hold for both physical and electronic circulation, and do trends differ between locale and population size subgroups?
  2. How much has the median library’s per person spending on electronic materials changed in the past four years?
  3. Do electronic materials enable libraries to provide greater value to their communities than traditional print materials based on cost per item circulated?

The brief includes the following findings, which are also available in table format:

  • Between FY 2014 and FY 2018,

    • the percentage of libraries offering electronic collection materials increased from 80 to 90%;
    • median per person spending on physical materials decreased by 6%, while median per person spending on electronic materials increased by 31%; and
    • median cost for physical items circulated increased by 11%, while median cost for e-circulation decreased by 26%.
  • In FY 2018, libraries in rural areas and libraries serving smaller populations paid less per electronic circulation than libraries situated in other locales or serving larger populations.

“Our research team at IMLS seeks to understand the evolving approaches used by America’s local libraries in response to shifting public demand for accessible information,” said Matt Birnbaum, IMLS senior evaluation officer. “Using data from our longstanding annual Public Libraries Survey, this research brief captures the recent acceleration in public use and investments in a wide array of electronic information resources. Looking ahead to a post-pandemic future, this brief can provide a valuable foundation for future comparative explorations of approaches that our country’s local libraries use to support and foster a knowledgeable citizenry.” 

Direct to Full Text Research Brief
9 pages; PDF.

About Gary Price

Gary Price ( 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, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.