The Great Recession Impact on US Public Libraries

By Aaron Skog

With talk of a potential new economic recession, it seems appropriate to assess how the last recession—the Great Recession—impacted public libraries in the US. The Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) makes its public library survey data available online, and if we examine this data on a state by state basis, or as a whole for the United States, we can see the dramatic impact the 2007-2009 Great Recession had on public libraries..

It is important to understand the scope and size of the impact of the Great Recession. If we only look at data for the past 5 years, we would see an alarming downward trend. (Please note: IMLS public library survey data is only available through 2017.)

If your library leadership saw this sort of trendline, alarm bells would be sounding about the precipitous decline in library visits. However, a much wider view of the data is needed in order to see what is truly happening.

What we are seeing is that the impact of the Great Recession still reverberates throughout US public libraries nine years after the fact. US Public library usage peaked in 2009, the year the Great Recession technically ended. Overall, US public library visits are now below the 2006 usage levels.

Using the 8 states in the US Great Lakes region as a comparison, we can see that Illinois public libraries experienced a steep rise in library visits, peaking in 2011 at 83,234,090. Since that year, Illinois has seen public library visits falling steadily.

Illinois public library circulation metrics also reflect this rise and fall, peaking in 2010 at 121,828,806 and falling 12% over the next 7 years. Illinois circulation numbers are holding steady for 2016-2017.

There are some bright spots in the data. Public library program attendance has been steadily rising, showing no evidence in the public library survey data of the falling when compared with circulation and library visit data. It is worth noting, however, Illinois public library program attendance represents only 0.4% of the total Illinois public library visits.

What can library leadership and staff do with this data?

  • If library trustees are overly focused on the year to year circulation and library visit counts, they should be made aware of the overall impact of the 2009 Great Recession. Context is key!
  • Regions matter—if your public library is seeing these downward trends, chances are that your neighboring libraries in the region are seeing the same trends.

The Illinois Public Library Annual Survey (IPLAR) data is provided to the IMLS, so your hard work each year helps with research and analysis. You can look forward to my next post on how Illinois public libraries individually are trending in these same metrics.