How many public libraries have closed? Redux

Last November (November 25, 2011), I asked the musical question “How many US public libraries have actually closed?” I got some comments (including one suggestion that it was 0.4% since 2005) but no actual answers.

I asked the question again recently in a comment grumping about the lead sentence of a LISNews story, a sentence beginning “In an age of library closings”:

Since you lead with that, I’ll repeat the question I’ve asked elsewhere (with no results): Do you–does anyone–have any actual data on actual library system closings? Not branches, not temporary shutdowns, but public libraries that actually disappear–or, let’s say, shut down for at least three years?

Has it been 1% over the last 10 years? 0.5%? 0.1%?

Have there been more public libraries (again, not branches–those are inherently more temporary) closed or opened over the last decade?

Or do we just conveniently talk about lots of library closures, despite lack of any real evidence that this is happening? I’m not trying to minimize the effects of branch “closures” or reduced hours, but I’d sure like to see some facts…

My question became a separate LISNews post.

Administrative entities, not outlets

Note that, in this question and elsewhere, I’m asking about libraries and library agencies–not individual branches. That is, I’m working off the 9,000+ number (closer to 9,200), not the 16,000+ number.

Why? Because branches come and go as part of how cities change. Yes, the temporary or permanent loss of a branch affects those served by it, but it’s of a different nature than the shutdown of an entire public library system. (Library branches also appear more easily than full library systems…)

The latest response to these questions has pointed me to IMLS “spreadsheets” saying that I could parse them and get the answers for myself. (The anonymous commenter Michael Golrick didn’t actually do this, understand–just said I could.) Which would be fine if:

  • What IMLS provided was actually spreadsheets or data that would load into Excel or equivalent. It isn’t. It’s either Access databases or flat files that are neither comma separated nor tab separated and that I could find no easy way to parse. (I tried.) Update: And now, when I try it again (after email from Michael Golrick, I can open the unzipped Access database (or one of the three, at least) in Excel. Why it didn’t work earlier: A mystery. Once I’m done with the manuscript I’m working on–in several weeks–I’ll pore over the documentation and see whether I can, in fact, answer my own question.)
  • The IMLS data provided firm evidence of closures. I have no idea whether or not that’s true.
So far, I still don’t have an answer, and I’m beginning to suspect that one doesn’t exist. But…

The net number appears to be negative

As I was looking at IMLS offerings, I did open the Public Libraries Survey Fiscal Year 2009,

And in the executive summary I found this bullet point:

“The number of public libraries has increased over the past 10 years.”

Later, I saw text that suggested there were 151 more public libraries in 2009 than a decade before.

It’s not clear to me whether IMLS means 151 more outlets (branches) or 151 more entities (libraries and library agencies). In either case, it’s a net increase, which says a lot about the flood of stories about how public libraries are shutting down all over the place. (In one case, it’s about a 1.6% increase; in the other, it’s about 0.9%.)

My question still stands: How many public libraries (not branches) have actually closed for extended periods, let’s say two years or more? How many of these are in towns and cities that have not become ghost towns?

Yes, there are budgetary problems. (When aren’t there?) Yes, public libraries need more funding.

But to me the primary effect of the “public libraries are closing all over the place!” meme is self-fulfilling prophecy and grist for the mill of libertarians and those who dislike public libraries: Oh well, they’re already shutting down like crazy, that’s just the way it is.

Which, as I suspected, is simply not true.

2 Responses to “How many public libraries have closed? Redux”

  1. Will Robinson Says:

    I live in Columbia, South Carolina and although the economy is one of the worst in the nation our libraries have stayed open. People depend on so many of their services, especially when unemployment is this high, that I think there might be a revolt if services were cut. I think around the country the urban libraries have been hit hardest. Detroit closed four branches is I remember. Here is an issue brief from ALA
    http://www.ala.org/research/sites/ala.org.research/files/content/initiatives/plftas/issuesbriefs/issuebrief_perfectstorm.pdf

  2. walt Says:

    Will: Thanks for that. The ALA brief has similar info to the IMLS publication (not surprising!). In neither case is there any indication that libraries have been closing. Branches are different situations. For example, given changes in Detroit’s population, is it possible that it simply makes sense to have fewer branches open longer hours? (Just asking, not assuming.) That’s why I’m focusing on libraries (administrative agencies) rather than branches.


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