The Smartest Readers

June 6, 2011

We all know that “Libraries are the smartest investment.” Study after study shows that for every dollar invested by a community in library services, $2.38 (PDF file), or $4.48 (PDF file), or even $6.54 (PDF file) in economic benefits are returned to the community. Another measure of the value of libraries is the individualized calculation provided by ROI calculators, allowing a library user to determine how much is saved by using the library.

One key use of libraries—and perhaps the most documented—is how many books and other materials are borrowed. The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) conducts an annual survey of the country’s 9,200+ public libraries. IMLS gathers data on the general population characteristics of the library district, how much is spent on library services, and how much the library is used, both in absolute numbers, as well as on a per capita basis. Overall, the amount of library circulation is impressive: In 2008, America’s public libraries circulated 2.2 billion books, or 7.7 per capita, based on the population of the legal service area for the libraries.

We dug a little deeper into the 2008 data (PDF file), the latest published, to find the libraries serving a population over 100,000, a total of 549 libraries. So which libraries have the highest circulation? Which cities have the “smartest readers”—those whose residents make heavy use of their tax-supported library?

The top 20 libraries for circulation per capita are:

Library Circulation
per capita
Ann Arbor (Mich.) District Library 58.94
Cuyahoga County Public Library, Parma, Ohio 33.44
Naperville (Ill.) Public Library 32.29
Multnomah County Library, Portland, Ore. 29.97
Central Rappahannock Regional Library, Fredericksburg, Va. 29.43
Douglas County Libraries, Castle Rock, Colo. 27.86
Santa Clara County Library, Los Gatos, Calif. 26.64
Arapahoe Library District, Englewood, Colo. 24.18
Howard County Library, Columbia, Md. 24.03
Saint Charles City-County (Mo.) Library District 23.18
Medina County (Ohio) District Library 23.09
Carroll County Public Library, Westminster, Md. 22.82
Santa Clara (Calif.) City Library 22.58
Allen County Public Library, Fort Wayne, Ind. 22.35
Monroe County Public Library, Bloomington, Ind. 21.58
Indianapolis–Marion County (Ind.) Public Library 20.64
Greene County Public Library, Xenia, Ohio 20.40
Ramsey Library, Shoreview, Minn. 20.32
Schaumburg Township (Ill.) District Library 20.11
Harford County Public Library, Belcamp, Md. 20.10

For a family of four, at $20 a book, the smartest readers in Ann Arbor are saving over $4,700 a year by using their library—and that’s before they take advantage of other services like museum passes, computer access, programs at the library, database access, or any of the other services offered.

Two of these libraries also appear on the list of cities whose residents are the heaviest purchasers of materials from online bookseller The Amazon analysis compiled sales data for all formats since the beginning of 2011 on a per capita basis in cities with more than 100,000 residents.

Where do Amazon’s top 20 “best read cities” rank by library circulation? Here are Amazon’s 20 top-ranked best-read cities compared to the major public library within their respective geographic areas and the library’s IMLS circulation rank.

City and Library Circulation Ranking
1. Cambridge, Mass.—Cambridge Public Library  138
2. Alexandria, Va.—Alexandria Library   133
3. Berkeley, Calif. —Berkeley Public Library     29
4. Ann Arbor, Mich.—Ann Arbor District Library        1
5. Boulder, Colo.—Boulder Public Library 70
6. Miami, Fla. —Miami-Dade Public Library System 397
7. Salt Lake City, Utah*—Salt Lake City Public Library        21
7. Salt Lake City, Utah*—Salt Lake County Library System 25
8. Gainesville, Fla.—Alachua County Library District  93
9. Seattle, Wash. —Seattle Public Library  22
10. Arlington, Va.—Arlington Department of Libraries 41
11. Knoxville, Tenn.—Knox County Public Library System   377
12. Orlando, Fla.—Orange County Library District      90
13. Pittsburgh, Pa.*—Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh   197
14. Washington, D.C.—District of Columbia Public Library  413
15. Bellevue, Wash.*—King County Library System   36
16. Columbia, S.C.—Richland County Public Library 97
17. St. Louis, Mo.*—St. Louis County Library       113
17. St. Louis, Mo.*—St. Louis Public Library   248
18. Cincinnati, Ohio—PL of Cincinnati and Hamilton County  24
19. Portland, Ore.—Multnomah County Library       4
20. Atlanta, Ga.—Fulton Public Library System      335

Ann Arbor and Portland, Oregon, are on both lists. Salt Lake City, Seattle, and Cincinnati are not far off—and might actually be part of the top 20 if we were able to use 2011 circulation figures. Most of the cities where people bought a lot of books are also ahead of the average per capita circulation. That readers both buy books and borrow from their library is no surprise to us. In 2007, the ALA Office for Research and Statistics reported a Harris poll (PDF file) concluding that “for about half of those [people] who have been to the library in the past year—both adults and youth—a purchase [of a book or CD] has been made.”


* The fine print: These comparisons are not exact. First, the purchase data are for 2011, whereas the circulation data are for 2008. Second, the library districts may or may not be in the same exact geographic area as is the purchase data. In two cases, there are two libraries, a city library and a county library, both based in the same city but with different service areas. In the case of Bellevue, Washington, the library (King County Library System) covers a much larger area; and in the case of Pittsburgh, a smaller area. One thing is likely the same: the number of unread titles, whether purchased or borrowed and returned.



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