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RELEASE: Public libraries see digital lending soar in past three years, with in-person visits and programming rebounding after reaching record lows during COVID-19 pandemic

New data from Urban Libraries Council provides a snapshot of library services and operations since the pandemic began.

Washington, DC — The COVID-19 pandemic immensely changed how public libraries operate and serve their communities. A new collection of data gathered by the Urban Libraries Council establishes a better understanding of pre- and post-pandemic library services and operations.

"In order to strengthen and advance the essential role of public libraries in our cities, access to timely and detailed data is a critical tool," said Brooks Rainwater, President and CEO of the Urban Libraries Council. "The Library Insights Survey serves as a guidepost for the resiliency of libraries and the bright spot they hold in our neighborhoods. This data demonstrates how libraries are strengthening their operations and purposefully serving their communities since the pandemic."

City and county library systems from across the U.S. and Canada participated in the first-ever ULC Library Insights Survey. ULC members from 98 libraries provided data around the topics of Attraction and Attendance, Location Experience and Use of Space, Programs and Services and Staffing and Budget. Respondents shared data for the years 2019 and 2022, establishing benchmarks of before the pandemic and during recovery. ULC has also collected preliminary data for the first six months of 2023.

Findings from the ULC Library Insights Survey include:

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.

The Library Insights Survey is designed to be an annual release from ULC, with new data released each fall. Download graphics and data from the 2023 Library Insights Survey at this link.

The Urban Libraries Council is an innovation and impact tank of North America’s leading public library systems. ULC drives cutting-edge research and strategic partnerships to elevate the power of libraries as essential, transformative institutions. More than 170 urban member libraries in the U.S. and Canada rely on ULC to identify significant challenges facing today’s communities and provide new tools and techniques to help libraries achieve stronger outcomes in education, digital equity, workforce and economic development, and race and social equity. Learn more at