Written by Brooks Rainwater, President and CEO, Urban Libraries Council
When I came to ULC last year, it was my vision for us to lay the groundwork for what the future of public libraries will look like. That requires us to know where we are and where we are going. So, we bolstered our ability to do research, conduct data analysis and create data visualizations about urban libraries. We are using this expanded focus on data to align technical assistance, member programming and create original research products.
An important research area we wanted to tackle was the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on public libraries. We know it immensely changed how libraries work and how they serve their communities. We wanted to understand what the new definition of normal is for library services and operations. That is why ULC conducted our first-ever Library Insights Survey this year, which will provide important data annually going forward on the state of urban public libraries.
Nearly 100 ULC members from the U.S. and Canada shared data for their libraries around the topics of Attraction and Attendance, Location Experience and Use of Space, Programs and Services, and Staffing and Budget. Respondents provided information for the years 2019 and 2022, so we have a snapshot of where things were before the pandemic and during recovery. Additionally, we have information from a sample of members to identify 2023 trends.
The Library Insights Survey serves as a guidepost for the resiliency of libraries and the bright spots they hold in our neighborhoods. This data demonstrates how libraries are strengthening their operations and purposefully serving their communities since the pandemic.
Results from the first-ever ULC Library Insights Survey are now available. ULC members also have exclusive access to the full dataset through interactive online dashboards, maps and charts to dig deeper into the data from 2019 and 2022 that we gathered. Read more about how to access the data-centric website below.
Five Takeaways from the ULC Library Insights Survey
1. In-person visits to libraries are gradually recovering from pandemic lows.
Respondents reported an average 44.5% decline in visits between 2019 and 2022. Several library systems were still in a modified operating status in 2022; partial branch closures and limited opening hours impacted how people could visit their library. However, preliminary 2023 data shows continuous improvements around in-person library visits. Libraries saw an average 3% difference of registered users between 2019 and 2022, a minimal decrease.
2. eResources like digital books, magazines and videos continue to be very popular for patrons.
Respondents reported an average 30% increase in eResources usage between 2019 and 2022, while there was an average decrease in the number of items in circulation by 22% during those years. These trends are expected to be consistent for 2023 as well.
3. Post-pandemic computer usage, room reservations and wireless sessions at the library are evolving.
Average computer usage at library locations declined nearly 26% between 2019 and 2022. Average number of room reservations declined by 23% and there was an average decrease of nearly 37% for wireless sessions at the library between 2019 and 2022.
4. Libraries are seeking to find a balance with program design and attendee demand since the pandemic.
Libraries reported an average 71% decrease in the number of programs offered between 2019 and 2022, while there was an average 58% decrease in program attendance during that time. However, both library programming and attendance looks to be on a rebound this year, according to preliminary data.
5. Libraries reported an average 8% budget increase between FY2019 and FY2022.
Between 2019 and 2022, libraries also reported a 19% increase for their security budgets and a 2% decrease in full-time employees. At the same time, inflation increased in the U.S. from 1.7% in September 2019 to 8.2% in September 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. ULC is closely monitoring what future fiscal years will look like, as COVID recovery funds diminish and local economic activity remains in flux, among other financial factors influencing library budgets.
How to Access Library Insights Data
The new Library Data Hive section of the ULC Member Hub has online data tools developed exclusively for ULC members. Select one of the four Library Insights Survey topic areas to see the results dashboard for all 98 libraries in the dataset. There are also comparative analysis dashboards that provide snapshots of the 2019 and 2022 averages for each data set, so you can see the changes pre- and post-pandemic for every library that completed the survey. Click here to sign in to the ULC Member Hub and get started. The ULC Data Hive is best accessed using a laptop or desktop computer.
We are incredibly excited about this new data tool for ULC members. Thank you to all the libraries that contributed to the Library Insights Survey, and we look forward to having even more members provide data for this annual survey.
Turning the Page on a New Year
The past 12 months were momentous for ULC and the library field at large. We place what you do every day front and center. ULC remains focused on connecting public library leaders and providing engaging programming and informative professional learning resources to you and your staff.
We’ll share highlights from 2023 in the days ahead, but I hope you have a safe and happy holiday season.
People, Power and Place: Takeaways for Library Leaders
In the 15 months since I started as President & CEO of ULC, I have had the opportunity to talk to the leader of every library in our membership and visit many libraries in my travels. And for a few days at the end of October, we harnessed that rewarding energy of learning from each other at the 2023 ULC Annual Forum in Seattle.
Protecting Intellectual Freedom & Condemning Books Bans
The Urban Libraries Council strongly supports libraries across North America as they face extreme challenges and recognize Banned Books Week. We’re grateful to partners such as the American Library Association and PEN America for cataloging the increase in book-banning attempts this year, on top of the already record number of attempts last year.