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Invest in tomorrow, invest in libraries

The Dow dropped below 8000 on September 19, 2002, but if we had a similar national library barometer, it would doubtless be reaching new heights.

A recent article in the Sacramento Bee is most encouraging as most of us approach budget time in this very difficult economy. It begins with "Want to make librarians laugh? Ask whether patronage is down because so much information is available on the Internet. Once they stop rolling on the floor, you'll get your answer: No!" It goes on to extol the wonders of rising public library use.


Two national studies commissioned by ALA and released in March 2002 show that Americans are using their libraries more than ever, and 91 percent of adults believe public libraries will play an important role in the future, despite all of the information available on the Internet. Waukesha County Federated Library System recently replicated both studies locally and found, not surprisingly very similar results. For the full ALA press release see: http://www.ala.org/news/v8n5/studies.html

The ALA Press release notes that librarians have long believed that when the economy goes down, public library use goes up. But no one has been able to substantiate this belief with data - until now. The ALA contracted with the University of Illinois Library Research Center (LRC) to study library use over the last five years at the 25 U.S. public libraries serving populations of 1 million or more. Using data from 18 of those large libraries, the study found that circulation has increased significantly since March 2001, when the National Bureau of Economic Research pegged the beginning of the latest recession. Using statistical analysis, the LRC found that circulation in March 2001 was 8.3 percent higher than would be expected from the trend observed since January 1997. Following the events of September 11, circulation in October 2001 exceeded the trend by 11.3 percent. For the national study see:


Waukesha County replicated the national study using local county statistics and came to the same conclusion - library use is counter cyclical. The variations noted in the national study continued through July of this year. For the Waukesha data see:


The ALA library use survey found that adults are satisfied with their public libraries (84 percent compared to 7 percent who were not satisfied). While current public library spending per capita is $25, more than half of those polled believe $26 to $100 per capita should be spent to support libraries. KRC Research & Consulting conducted the "@ your library(tm): Attitudes Toward Public Libraries" study, which polled about 1,000 adult Americans in a national random-sample telephone survey conducted March 8-11.


Waukesha County Federated Library System contracted with our local Extension office to replicate that survey in June of this year. This poll included 500 Waukesha residents. For the report see:


In Waukesha we found that:

  • Almost 45% of the respondents had used a library more than 11 times in the last year compared to 25% nationally.
  • Nearly 83% of Waukesha County residents were either extremely satisfied or very satisfied with their public library. That compared to 60% in the nation.
  • Nearly 88% of Waukesha County residents rated their library's use of tax funds as good or excellent, almost exactly the same rate as is found nationally.
  • Nearly 80% of those that responded in Waukesha County thought that $26 per capita or more was a proper amount of library taxes to pay. That compared to 52% nationally.
  • Almost 94% of Waukesha County residents rated the library staff as good or excellent, compared to 85% nationally.
  • In Waukesha County 95% of respondents believe that libraries will continue to exist despite the Internet. That compares to 91% nationally.

I commend ALA for embarking on both of these studies. The information was extremely valuable for planning purposes and the survey methods were easily replicable. Having national data to compare with was extremely helpful during our recent planning committee deliberations. The public will want us to continue to invest in tomorrow by investing in libraries. We just have to assure that elected officials hear them.


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October 2008

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