what share of U.S. adults have used a public library in the past year?

While recent estimates of the share of U.S. adults who have used a public library in the past year range from 47% to 68%, the most credible statistics, in my judgment, are at the bottom of that range. A relatively large survey that the U.S. Census Bureau administered as part of the Current Population Survey in 2002 found that 48% of households had used a public library in the previous year. Children use public libraries relatively more intensively than adults. Hence the share of adults who used a public library was lower than 48%. A broadband survey that the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) sponsored in 2009 asked about library use. It found that 47% of persons ages 18 and older had used a public library in the past year.

Smaller-sized surveys that the American Library Association (ALA) sponsored have produced higher figures.  These surveys worded the relevant question to encompass more library use:  “how many times during the past year have you visited the public library or used public library services.” The surveys report responses broken down by visits/uses “in person”, “by telephone”, and “by computer”. Evidently the interviewer prompted respondents with these different types of library visits. Statistics closely related to advocacy lose credibility.[*]  The ALA-sponsored surveys seem to me significantly less credible than the Census/FCC ones.

Over the past decade and a half, use of public libraries appears to have shifted toward greater use by a smaller share of adults. Relatively credible statistics concerning the share of library users suggest a higher share in 1995 (and earlier) than in 2002 (and latter). In particular, in 1995, a relatively large survey that the National Center for Education Statistics sponsored found that 65% of households had used a public library within the previous year.  In contrast to the declining share of adult users, visits to U.S. public libraries per person and public library circulation per person rose 30% and 20%, respectively, from 1995 to 2008.  These figures are for all visitors, not just adults.  However, library use appears not to have shifted toward children from 1995 to 2008.

What the apparent shift towards greater public library use by a smaller share of adults means for democratic support of libraries, and whether such a trend can and should be reversed, are complicated questions. But those questions can’t be meaningfully considered without true knowledge about library use.

*  *  *  *  *

Data: statistics on the share of U.S. adults who have used a library in the past year (Excel version)

[*] Ray Lyons has made this point convincingly.  See, e.g. his recent presentation, Truth-Telling and Survey Methods in Advocacy Research: A Call for the Formation of the Flat Venus Society in Library Assessment, paper presented at 2010 Library Assessment Conference, October 25-27, Baltimore, Maryland.  Advocating for worthy causes isn’t bad.  It also isn’t a good substitute for learning the truth.

value a photograph by its wrapping

C.H. Williamson daguerreotype in case

Photography rapidly became a major commercial business in the mid-1800s. Commercial photographers gave ordinary persons, for the first time, the opportunity to acquire images of their loved ones.

Persons today, sharing photographs on Flickr, Facebook, and elsewhere, probably do not love less than persons in the mid-1800s.  But making photographs today is much cheaper than doing so in the mid-1800s. The wrappings in which photographs are displayed generally reflect those changed circumstances.  That creates a new opportunity for signaling value.

*  *  *  *  *

C. H. Williamson of Brooklyn, NY, produced the above daguerreotype.  The Williamson Gallery was active in Brooklyn from 1851 to 1859.

slow decline of the VCR / video cassette

In July, 2010, 64% of U.S. households still had a VCR. A computer that’s five years old can’t effectively run an up-to-date virus scanning program.  A mobile phone that’s five years old can’t connect to many mobile phone networks.  I would guess that almost all the VCR’s in households today are more than five years old.

A wider scope of device competition in living rooms, if it occurs, will be associated with much faster replacement of living-room technology.

old wired paging system

*  *  *  *  *

Data notes:  The figure for July, 2010 VCR household penetration is from the Centris White Paper, Blu-Ray Adoption and Ownership Among US Households.  In 2006, household VCR penetration was 84%, and the ratio of commercial DVD rentals to video cassette rentals was 115 to 1.  See citations for consumer technology transitions.