Decline of library usage

Decline of library usage

As technology becomes increasingly available and digital information expands on a daily basis, academic library use is on the decline. Research libraries on college and university campuses are finding that “gate counts and circulation of traditional materials are falling at many college libraries across the country, as students find new study spaces in dorm rooms or apartments, coffee shops, or nearby bookstores." [1]

The shift to electronic resources has many scholars and librarians worrying about the loss of a central community resource in physical libraries, whether they are at the university or public level. University boards are becoming increasingly skeptical about new additions and library buildings since they cost so much. Many academics mourn the loss of a common culture of library use across campuses and communities while others hail the era of a new type of library with a new structure of knowledge and practical use. There has been a move to make the library seem more than a tool and storage house for books and information as different programs are offered and coffee bars are added; this is a huge transition from the traditional assumption of the library.[1]


Evidence of decline

Louis Round Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Since the mid 1990s, the declining trend in library usage has been well documented.[citation needed] With the rapid expansion of the internet to the general public, people began to seek answers in the quickest and most convenient way. Declining usage has been an issue both within and outside of the United States and has received considerable attention, especially over the last decade. While physical use may have been reasonably expected to decline in recent years due to the large scale shift to digital libraries and the increase in sources such as e-journals, the trend has appeared to be on a much larger scale. As the decline in library use remains somewhat of an ambiguous problem to solve, a large number of experts feel that library usage will continue its downward trend in the coming future until libraries can learn to adapt accordingly, if at all.[2]

Not surprisingly, declining usage has been most well documented in university and academic libraries. A large scale study of academic libraries conducted from 2002-2004 indicated that average weekly reference transactions declined 2.2%. Additionally, a 2005 report from the Association of Research Libraries stated that references dropped an average 4.5% per year while circulation transactions fell 1.2% per year dating to 1991.[3]

A general change in attitude regarding libraries has become apparent, especially in younger generations. Students now enter college with a much different idea regarding libraries and how to go about finding information they need. A study of around 2,000 American college students in 2001 showed that 93% felt that finding information online “made more sense” than going to the actual library. Furthermore, 83% stated they were frequently unable to get the information they needed due to library hours and another 75% said they just didn’t have time to go to the library.[4]

Such opinions have generated expected results. From 1995 to 2003, the ratio of reference queries to full-time students plummeted for ARL libraries. Similarly, total circulation to full-time students fell at a sharp rate over the same time frame. Regarding the issue, University of Illinois’ Graduate School of Library and Information Science professor Jerome McDonough observed that in terms of undergraduate usage, “We're losing clientele; students may come in the library to study, to socialize, to hit the newly installed cafe designed to lure them in, but they're not using library materials, or library services, at anything like the rate they did even ten years ago.”[5]

Likewise, the issue has been of particular relevance in the United Kingdom. A nationwide report in March 2004 indicated that over the previous 10 year period, overall library usage declined 21% and circulation fell 35%. The report further claimed that libraries within the United Kingdom could be unused and irrelevant by 2020.[6] In 2005, Parliament directly addressed the issue as well, with the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee producing a report calling for “urgent action” to reverse the decline of public libraries. It included 42 recommendations and conclusions regarding what Parliament considered a pressing issue.[7]

Research conducted

In order to assess the decline of library usage, a multitude of research has taken place since the turn of the 21st century. When studying the overall decline of library usage, a number of typical factors are considered, including changes in physical attendance, the number of print sources available, overall circulation of materials (both print and electronic), reference questions asked, and the use of reference alternatives, such as online search engines.[4] To this point, universities and major national library organizations have been at the forefront of conducting such research.

American Library Association

The American Library Association has its own Office of Research and Statistics that has the mission of providing "leadership and expert advice to ALA staff, members, and public on all matters related to research and statistics about libraries, librarians, and other library staff; represent the Association to Federal agencies on these issues; and initiate projects needed to expand the knowledge base of the field through research and the collection of useful statistics." This large organization conducts research on a myriad of issues and publishes statistics regarding use at libraries on all levels. For instance, the Public Library Funding and Technology Access Study (begun in 1994) assesses the availability of computers and internet-related services in public libraries in the United States as well as the impact of funding changes on access to these resources.[8]

Association of College and Research Libraries

The Association of College and Research Libraries a division of the American Library Association, focuses on research libraries at the college and university levels. This organization’s Research and Scholarship Committee conducts numerous research studies on adapting library use and instruction for the digital age. It publishes an agenda calling for further research in the field of library instruction and information literacy.[9] The ACRL research committee publishes a variety of documents related to the need to adapt to the digital age, such as their 2007 report: “Top ten assumptions for the future of academic libraries and librarian.” [10] Which amounts to the following assumptions:

  • 1. There will be an increased emphasis on digitizing collections, preserving digital archives, and improving methods of data storage and retrieval.
  • 2. The skill set for librarians will continue to evolve in response to the needs and expectations of the changing populations (students and faculty) that they serve.
  • 3. Students and faculty will increasingly demand faster and greater access to services.
  • 5. The demand for technology-related services will grow and require additional funding.
  • 6. Higher education will increasingly view the institution as a business.
  • 7. Students will increasingly view themselves as customers and consumers, expecting high-quality facilities and services.
  • 8. Distance learning will be an increasingly more common option in higher education, and will coexist but not threaten the traditional bricks-and-mortar model.
  • 9. Free public access to information stemming from publicly funded research will continue to grow.
  • 10. Privacy will continue to be an important issue in librarianship.

Council on Library and Information Resources

The Council on Library and Information Resources published a report in 2003 that provides an overview of over 200 recent research studies (conducted between 1995–2003) concerning use and users of electronic library resources. Conclusions from this report, like that college and high school students use the internet more than the library for research or that students’ quality judgments on internet material often do not conform to quality criteria of faculty members,[11] are relevant to the move toward digital information since the results can be applied by librarians nationwide to improve and adapt their services to a rapidly changing world [12]

Library alternatives

A major factor in the decline of library usage has been the emergence of other popular supplements. Most notable among these are Google and other popular search engines such as Bing, which allow people to receive a reply in tenths of a second. While information retrieved on search engines has proved less reliable than library resources[citation needed], people have shown a preference for quick access. Furthermore, quick access tools such as Google Scholar, which directs searches to scholarly literature, have emerged very popular with students.

The purchasing of books has also gained popularity. Chain bookstores such as Barnes & Noble and Borders have been very successful and experienced rapid expansion, partly due to the promotion of atmosphere and amenities such as Starbucks Coffee. This has been especially detrimental to libraries, as studies have shown a major intrinsic factor in avoiding libraries today is the appearance and conditions of the library.[13] In 1979, about two and a half times as many books were loaned than were purchased in the UK. As of 2005, the number is about even.[6] Online book stores and other shopping websites such as have also enjoyed tremendous growth over the last decade as well.

Related factors

In recent years, print media has been in sharp decline. This has been especially notable in the newspaper industry, where since 2007 newspapers such as The Cincinnati Post and The Baltimore Examiner have gone out of business. Likewise, other notable publications such as The Christian Science Monitor have taken to the approach of adopting primarily online business models.[14]

Periodicals and magazines have seen a similar drop off in subscriptions, which has had a much more direct effect on library usage. Over 2009, the San Francisco Public Library will reduce its spending on periodicals over 16%, while over a decade it has cut its subscriptions down from over 15,000 to about 11,000.[15]

Despite the work of libraries to adopt technologies, the primary reason people still go to the library is for print media.[13] With such a precipitous decline, libraries have inevitably seen a drop in patrons and circulation, as efforts to digitize have not been marketed effectively enough to reach declining audiences.

Online presence

Libraries have already begun to shift to react to the increasing reliance on the internet by the world. Online public access catalogs (OPAC) enable patrons to search the library database for its holdings from remote locations. In some cases, libraries are attempting to become fully digitized by becoming digital libraries to cater to a generation of people who find the internet faster and easier than physically going to a library.[16] However, the complexity of the search methods provided by libraries alienates many potential users. While most academic researchers and students acknowledge that libraries contain much more relevant and high quality materials, the confusing search process makes it difficult to find these resources. With the current premium placed on time, students are not willing to sift through the clutter to find the sources, rather turning to Google because of the accessibility of the content, not its quality. So despite the efforts to digitize, libraries are still losing potential patrons to less complicated mediums.[2]

Economic effects on library usage

Although a general downward trend in overall library usage since the creation of the internet exists as explained previously, general library use will fluctuate with changing economic cycles in a specific manner. The reason for the connection is the services that libraries provide citizens free of charge. Libraries provide a multitude of job-related services especially for the unemployed mainly centered on the free computer and internet access provided. Also, many libraries provide resume writing and interview workshops and session with career consolers to help the unemployed.[17] These services, along with people’s need to rent rather than purchase books during tough times, make libraries extremely popular during recessionary times. Therefore, it has been seen that during recession, regardless of the current overall trend, library usage will increase as people clamor for the free services. While the effects of the recession are being felt all around the nation, a particular study in Washington state places numbers to the increases in library usage. Washington State Librarian Jan Walsh states, “This study follows a trend found elsewhere in the nation during this current economic recession. More people are relying on their public libraries during tough economic times. It really underscores the importance of public libraries, especially when the economy declines and unemployment rises.” The study looked to measure the increases in six categories from June 2008 until November 2008 in comparison to previous years. The categories considered were attendance (patron visits), circulation (material checkouts), virtual visits, reference transactions, percent of time public Internet computers are in use, and number of public internet computer users. The percent increases from the previous year are as follows:

  • Attendance (patron visits): 7.5%
  • Circulation (material checkouts): 11.22%
  • Virtual visits (such as to a library Web page): 20.21%
  • Reference transactions: 4.41%
  • Percent of time public Internet computers are in use: 9.74%
  • Number of public Internet computer users: 13.77%.

As can be seen from this data, all aspects of library use have significantly increased compared to the previous year.[18]

Unfortunately, as library usage grows during a recession, the ability to fund public libraries declines. A decline in state funding for libraries during the 2009 fiscal year has been reported in forty-one percent of states according to the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies. While the effects on library funding are felt throughout the nation, the southeast has been most effected by the recession. South Carolina and Florida reported a 30 percent and 23.4 percent decrease respectively from last year. Even states that provide the largest portion of state funding towards public libraries per capita, Ohio and Hawaii, are reporting or anticipating declining state funds.[19]

See also

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  1. ^ a b Carlson, Scott. “As Students Work Online, Reading Rooms Empty Out -- Leading Some Campuses to Add Starbucks”, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 16 November 2001. Retrieved 2009-12-13.
  2. ^ a b Law, John. “Academic Libraries and the Struggle to Remain Relevant: Why Research is Conducted Elsewhere”, ProQuest, 2009. Retrieved 2009-12-05.
  3. ^ Applegate, Rachel “Whose Decline? Which Academic Libraries are “Deserted” in Terms of Reference Transactions?”, Reference and User Services Quarterly, 28 September 2007. Retrieved 2009-12-05.
  4. ^ a b Troll, Denise A.“How and Why Are Libraries Changing?”, Digital Library Federation, 9 January 2001. Retrieved 2009-10-05.
  5. ^ “If libraries had shareholders”,, 17 July 2007. Retrieved 2009-10-18.
  6. ^ a b “Analyst Claims UK Libraries in Decline; CILIP Begs to Differ”, American Library Association, 30 April 2004. Retrieved 2009-11-25.
  7. ^ “Drastic Action Needed to Reverse U.K. Library Decline, Says Parliament”, American Library Association, 25 March 2005. Retrieved 2009-11-25.
  8. ^ “Office for Research and Statistics”, American Library Association, 2009. Retrieved 2009-12-12.
  9. ^ “Research and Scholarship Committee”, American Library Association, 2009. Retrieved 2009-12-12.
  10. ^ Mullins, James L., Frank R. Allen, and Jon R. Hufford. Top ten assumptions for the future of academic libraries and librarians: A report from the ACRL research committee”, American Library Association, April 2007. Retrieved 2009-12-12.
  11. ^ Tenopir, Carol. “Use and Users of Electronic Library Resources: An Overview and Analysis of Recent Research Studies”, Council on Library and Information Resources, August 2003. Retrieved 2009-12-12.
  12. ^ Additional conclusions of the aforementioned report can be found at "Conclusions".
  13. ^ a b Breslin, Francis and McMenemy, David. “The decline in book borrowing from Britain's public libraries: a small scale Scottish study”, University of Strathclyde, 2006. Retrieved 2009-12-05.
  14. ^ “Online Monitor Looks Ahead” 7 November 2008. Retrieved 2009-12-06.
  15. ^ “Want evidence of the decline of print media? Go to the library.”,, 16 November 2009. Retrieved 2009-12-05.
  16. ^ Striphas, Ted. "Books: "An Outdated Technology?" Weblog post. The Late Age of Print. 4 September 2009. Web. 15 December 2009. <>
  17. ^ “ALA Fact Sheet 6”, American Library Association, September 2009. Retrieved 3 December 2009
  18. ^ “Public Library Usage Report” Washington State Library, 2009. Retrieved 3 December 2009
  19. ^ “State Funding for many public libraries on decline”, American Library Association, 10 February 2009. Retrieved 3 December 2009

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