Do People Still Check Out Books at Libraries?

Recently I’ve written two posts about changes technology is driving in libraries1. One of the articles I mentioned2 from Wired included a small snippet about books—the traditional medium available at libraries—and how these technological advances have affected how people interact with them.

But what about books? Public Library Association research shows that people have checked out slightly fewer materials in recent years. And Pew found that about a third of patrons are opposed to makerspaces if they displace books.

I haven’t checked a book out in ages, so I was really interested to know how behavior across all library patrons is trending.

Unfortunately the article didn’t actually reference that research, so I went out looking for it. After some digging I found a report from the American Library Association that confirms Wired’s claim about people checking out reference materials3. Here’s a chart that displays the changes visually:


Here’s a summary:

Although reference transactions declined slightly during between FY2002 and FY2009, there was considerable growth in the use of public Internet computers by library visitors.

Interesting stuff—the rise in use of technology in libraries isn’t associated with an equal decline in use of books.

A Pew Study of what people do at libraries4 confirms that checking out books is still a top activity at libraries:


This makes sense, of course, as adoption of new technology trends at libraries isn’t ubiquitous and will likely take time. Interesting stuff to observe, nonetheless.

Also, one other point in the Wired piece piqued my interest. The author asked librarians how they felt about technological change in libraries. The responses were encouraging:

But while I’m just as sentimental about the primacy of hard copy, the librarians aren’t. As they all tell me, their job is helping with access to knowledge—not all of which comes in codex form and much of which is deeply social. Libraries aren’t just warehouses for documents; they’re places to exchange information. “Getting people in a room, talking and teaching each other, is huge,” Backus says. Nor are the makerspaces necessarily expensive. The Chattanooga project cost only $25,000.

1. You can read my first post about bookless libraries here and my second post about consumption VS creation in libraries here.2. You can read the Wired article about makerspaces in libraries on the Wired website.3. You can read and download a full PDF of the American Library Association report here.4. You can read the full Pew study on what people do at libraries on the Pew Internet website.

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