How Low Can Our Book Budgets Go?

More books are getting published, but public libraries are buying less

October 14, 2013


Ask the average Joe what’s the first thing that comes to his mind when he thinks about libraries, and the answer will almost always be “books.”

But don’t just take Joe’s word for it. OCLC’s surveys on the “library brand” regularly turn up the same result. In fact, in Perceptions of Libraries 2010, OCLC found that in the previous five years libraries have become even “more strongly associated with books than they were before”—69% in 2005 vs. 75% in 2010.

Or ask any of the 1.59 billion people who came through our doors in an average year and you’d get a few who would say they were there to use a computer, fill out a job application, or attend a program. Fewer now would say they came to ask a question or find out a fact; but the vast majority of them would answer—just as they did in the earliest days of libraries—that they had come to get a book. Most people could not imagine a library without books any more than they could imagine accountants without accounts or lawyers without the law.

But the numbers tell a different story:

Figure 1. Books purchased and market share for public libraries, 1989 and 2009. Data from Book Industry Trends.


  • According to the most recent Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) data, in 2011 public libraries spent an average of only 11.4 cents of every dollar on books or materials of any kind. That’s much less than other companies spend that are also in the business of lending things to people. According to its 2009 Annual Report, Blockbuster spent 44% of its money on the movies it circulated, while Netflix spends an average of 55.9% of its revenues on content (Netflix 2011 Annual Report). Netflix doesn’t have our buildings to maintain, but still it indicates the kind of money these companies are willing to spend to maintain adequate collections.
  • The percentage of their budgets public libraries spend on materials has been trending steadily downward for many years now. According to Robert D. Leigh in The Public Library in the United States (Columbia University Press, 1950), that figure was 25% in 1942. IMLS data shows the percentage had dropped to 15.6% by 1989 and to 11.7% by 2010. That figure would be bad enough if we were spending it all on print books, but we are not. For a least the last 20 years, we’ve been stretching our declining materials budgets to pay for other things like databases, large VHS movie collections (which we soon threw away and replaced with DVDs), and now ebooks—all out of the same shrinking pot.
  • The actual number of books added to public library shelves has also dropped substantially over the past 20 years. According to Book Industry Trends (the book industry’s standard statistical report), in 1989 public libraries across the United States purchased a total of 41.3 million volumes, but by 2009 public libraries bought only 27.9 million books—a decline of more than 32% over 20 years (see Figure 1). As a result, public libraries’ share of the total book market has plummeted from 4% in 1989 to 1% in 2009.

So it is small wonder that publishers pay little heed to our protests that “libraries buy books” or our threats to boycott them if they don’t do what we want. When public libraries represent just 1% of the total book market, what do publishers have to lose?

Figure 2. US book titles oublished 1880-2010 vs. percentage of public library budget spent of materials. Data from RR Bowker, The Public Library Inquiry, and IMLS.
Books are booming

However, the real irony is that this decline in library book-buying has taken place right in the middle of one of the single greatest booms in book publishing in the history of this country and perhaps the world. Take a look at Figure 2 (above). In 1950, when libraries were spending 25% of their budgets on materials, 11,200 titles were published in the US. By 1990, the number of titles published had increased by more than threefold to 46,743 per year, while our collection expenditures had dropped to 15.9%. By 2010, the number of US titles published had skyrocketed to 328,259—a 602% increase—while our collection spending had declined to 11.7%.

Those titles weren’t just sitting around in warehouses either. People were buying them big time. According to Book Industry Trends, the number of books sold in the US exploded from 955 million in 1975 (or 4.4 per capita) to 3.1 billion in 2009—more than 10 books purchased for every man, woman, and child in the US. But while the American public was more than doubling its book purchases, library buying declined by over 32%.

Americans clearly have not lost interest in books, but I’m not so sure about libraries.

Facing the consequences

Our protracted disinvestment in books and materials has very real consequences for libraries and patrons. Some of these are obvious:

  • Months-long holding queues for bestsellers and popular titles;
  • Whole sections of collections depleted by school assignments and runs on current topics;
  • Outdated editions of travel guides;
  • Old legal and medical books still on the shelves because we can’t afford to buy the new ones.

Other symptoms are more subtle:

  • A shift toward buying DVDs and bestsellers to balance circulation against a declining budget;
  • The gradual aging of collections as we cut back on weeding;
  • Thousands of books by less-well-known authors not purchased because the budget allows us to buy only popular titles.

According to the Public Library Inquiry, libraries serving populations of 100,000 or more purchased an average of 48,000 books in 1948—enough to buy more than four copies of every one of the 11,000 titles published in that year. The librarian’s real problem then was not lack of funds, as the inquiry pointed out, but rather “to determine what is not worth having and the number of duplicates to buy.”

Today we have a different problem. According to the most recent IMLS statistics, libraries serving populations of 100,000 or more had a median book budget of $433,185 in 2010. That was enough to buy about 21,659 books at an average price of $20 each (about half the number of copies as in 1948). The difference is that in 2010, the US published 328,259 titles. Even if a library purchased only one copy of every title they bought, they could not afford to purchase more than 6% of all the titles published in 2010.

Bear in mind that we are talking only about large urban libraries here; the vast majority of libraries, which serve fewer than 100,000 people each, fare much worse.

I hear some of you saying, “Yes, but we must be doing something right, because we’ve heard library circulation has been increasing recently.” And you are right. From 1989 to 2009, as library book purchases were declining 32%, library circulation actually increased from 5.6 to 8.1 per capita—a 44% increase over 20 years. However, in the same 20-year period we also saw a stupendous increase in circulation of videos and DVDs, from almost nothing in the late 1980s to the point where (according to OCLC in How Libraries Stack Up, 2010) by 2010 we were lending 2.1 million of them a day, accounting for at least 31% of all public library checkouts.

In fact, the mushrooming of video borrowing has led some to suggest that many public libraries today more closely resemble the corner video store than they do the “cornerstone of democracy.” Couple that with an increasing focus on bestsellers and popular titles in the “Give ’em what they want” philosophy pioneered by former Baltimore County Public Library Director Charlie Robinson, and it is not hard to see how you could still get significant boosts in circulation from small numbers of highly popular items even while overall investment in collections has been languishing.

We may not be able to enjoy that circulation boom for too much longer. The increasing popularity of streaming media services like NetFlix and Amazon and the growth of inexpensive DVD rental kiosks like RedBox are threatening to erode our DVD circulation. It may not be too long before libraries are back to just checking out books.

The first signs of this decline could already be here. According to 2011 IMLS data, after years of increases, overall public library circulation was down 1% and per capita circulation decreased 3.13%—from 8.31 to 8.05 per capita—between 2010 and 2011.

If you want to see where all of this ends up, look no farther than Britain. Just as in the US, libraries in the UK have been spending less on books since at least the early 1990s. In a 2002 report, the Audit Commission—a government agency charged with “assuring proper stewardship of public finances”—found that spending on books had dropped by a third, from 15% to 10% of total library budgets between 1992 and 2002, even while overall library funding remained largely stable and consumer book purchases increased by over 25% in the same period (Building Better Library Services, PDF file).

Figure 3. Actual and projected book loans in UK public libraries. From Who's in Charge, prepared from data in the Audit Commission Report, Building Better Libraries, 2002.Unlike the US, however, UK libraries have suffered significant declines in both circulation and visits as a result. The Audit Commission found that library visits were down an average of 2% annually and book circulation had “fallen by almost one-quarter” since 1993–1994—a trend that, if continued, would reach zero in around 20 years’ time. See Figure 3 for a dramatic chart of this decline that was prepared for the Who’s In Charge report (PDF file) using Audit Commission data.

The most recent reports show that the situation has not improved. The 2012 Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) Annual Libraries Survey showed that spending on books had dropped to 7.2% of total library budgets, and that both visits and circulation were continuing to decline. In fact, the situation has become so dire that UK councils have been closing libraries at a steady pace: 347 since 2009–2010, and 201 in 2012, with an increasing number being run by volunteers (more than 170 in 2012).

So why is the UK suffering from a decline in library services while the US has so far managed to sidestep it? There are two clear differences between public libraries in the UK and the US. First, UK libraries are spending about 25% less per capita than we are on books. Secondly, they don’t have a robust AV circulation to cover it up. According to the most recent CIPFA statistics, audiovisual formats account for only 7.5% of total circulation, as opposed to the 30+% that is typical for libraries in the US. So, while we are not there yet, with the continued decline in our materials budgets and the impending erosion of our DVD circulation, US libraries could quickly find themselves in the same straits as our cousins in the UK—unless we are willing to do something about it.


So what can we do? First, we need to acknowledge we’ve got a problem. Most of us have been gradually nibbling away at our book budgets for so long that we think it’s perfectly normal to spend less than 12 cents (and dropping) of our budget dollar on materials, even while the number of books published and the number of books people are buying is increasing dramatically. I’m not sure what the right number is; clearly no book budget today would be big enough to get us back to the 1950s, when we could afford to buy four copies of every title published. We all need to determine what budget is necessary to ensure that libraries can offer a broad, current, and relevant selection, allowing patrons who walk through our doors to have a reasonable chance of finding what they want (as well as a few things they didn’t even know they wanted) without having to wait for months.

Second, we need to examine how we are spending our current book budgets. Not only are funds shrinking, but we’ve been spending much of what’s left on everything but printed books (databases, DVDs, audiobooks, videogames, and ebooks). If we want to experiment with new formats, we should find new funding sources for them, not merely carve them out of inadequate book budgets.

Third, we should closely examine every area of library operations to see whether there are more efficient or less expensive ways of doing things, then pour any savings back into materials. Clearly, the first place to look is staffing because it accounts for by far the largest portion of our budgets (67%, according to IMLS statistics). New technologies and approaches now make it possible to staff libraries more efficiently than we have in the past. But we should not stop there. I’ll just give you one egregious example: Why does it cost us anywhere from $2 to $5 and up (typical price range for vendor processing) to catalog and process a book when bookstores are doing the same thing for just pennies?

Finally, we also need to think long and hard before we divert precious money in pursuit of the latest “shiny new object”—such as makerspaces—until we can assure ourselves that we are doing a good job accommodating the needs of the vast majority of our public who come to the library expecting to find a great selection of books.

And what happens if we don’t do something about our declining materials budgets? Then we will begin to lose the confidence of the average Joe and Jill and their kids that the library is a great place for books. In relatively short order we could find ourselves dealing with declining usage and closed libraries—just like the UK—and facing the imminent demise of a once proud and important institution from a self-inflicted wound.



(Top) Darien (Conn.) Library glass-enclosed atrium and staircase. (Bottom) The library's entryway. (Photo: Robert Mintzes)

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