television's effect on public library use

The rise of television in the U.S. in the 1950s did not greatly affect library book circulation. The share of households in the U.S. with television rose from 9% in 1950 to 87% in 1960. Over that same period, public library book circulation per person in libraries’ service areas rose about 40%. While television looms large in much thinking about media, factors other than television were more important in driving library book circulation.

The rise of television probably reduced library book circulation in the 1950s about 20% relative to what it would have been without television. In a study published in 1963, Edwin Parker matched 14 communities in Illinois with similar population sizes, urban rural status, and public library book circulation. In one community in each pair, the share of television households rose from less than 10 percent to more than 70 percent from 1950 to 1953 (early TV sample). In the other community in the pair, that rise occurred between 1953 and 1958 (late TV sample). The patterns of library book circulation in the libraries’ service areas is consistent with the rise in access to television accounting for a one-book reduction in library circulation per person per year (see table below). That’s about 20% of circulation per person in 1958.

Book Circulation from Public Libraries
Year Early TV Sample Late TV Sample Difference
1950 4.021 4.579 0.558
1953 3.726 5.364 1.638
1958 4.838 5.490 0.652
Figures are average circulation in the year indicated per person in the libraries’ service areas.
Source: Parker (1963) p. 586.

Audiovisual items are more significant to library book circulation today than the rise of television was. Circulation of audiovisuals currently accounts for about 25% of public library circulation. Substituting audiovisual borrowing for book borrowing involves changing a smaller scope of behavior than substituting watching television for borrowing items.


Parker, Edwin B. (1963), “The Effects of Television on Public Library Circulation,” The Public Opinion Quarterly, v. 27, n. 4 (Winter), pp. 578-589.

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