Public library openings and my problem with negativity

Last November (November 25, 2011), I asked “How many US public libraries have actually closed?” Let me quote a little of that post:

When reading various posts and articles from various directions–some celebrating the promised end of public libraries, most bemoaning the decline of public libraries–I keep running into comments about so many public library closures.

LISNews, for example, seems to feature any story that suggests a public library might be in danger of closing, or that some source of funding has declined, and sometimes seems to have a “we’re all gonna die!” feel to it. It’s not the only one, to be sure…and I’ve noticed that threats or temporary closures seem to get a lot more coverage than reopenings, new library openings, or threats that were overcome. I know: “If it bleeds, it leads”: Journalism tends to emphasize the negative.

I got some interesting comments, but no real numbers, although there was one suggestion that the number was 0.4% since 2005.


Two months later (January 25, 2012), I posted “How many public libraries have closed? Redux.”

I noted the first post and lack of answers. I also noted that I’d asked the question again at LISNews in grumping about a story with the lead “In an age of library closings”–a fairly typical lead, since it appears to be common knowledge that public libraries are shutting down all over the place. Here’s what I said then:

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…

That question became a separate LISNews post. My dystopian friend Blake Carver came up with an “off the top of my head” list of closures and, as I would expect, his firm conviction that nearly all public library funding news is bad news. I quote:

Buffalo & Erie County Public Library closed a dozen or so branches 5 or 6 years ago.
Detroit Public Library is closing a bunch of branches.
That system in Texas is closing, or closed.
What’s the story in Chicago & Seattle? They are talking about closing branches?
UK libraries are in bad shape, I think they’ve closed a few, a few are being run by volunteers.
I’m pretty sure I just read a story about a place closing a branch in a mall someplace in the midwest.

As someone who scans maybe 100 stories about libraries a day I’d say the general trend is 90% terrible for budgets as reported in local news papers. I don’t know that there is a huge wave of closings though. It wouldn’t surprise me if there was one coming though. (Note: Huge Wave could mean numbers closer to 20, not 2,000)

That final paragraph is interesting. I believe most local news reporting is negative, because that’s the way news works.

A city increasing its funding for public libraries by 5% is not news; a city cutting its funding by 5% is news. Hell, look at the wave of stories and comments on the order of “OMG! California’s public libraries are all gonna’ close!” given the loss of somewhat less than 1% of public library funding…that is, what was left of state funding. The portion of those stories that followed the loss of $12.5 million with a note that California’s public library budgets total something like $1.3 billion? I don’t remember ever seeing such a story, actually…

Beyond that, we got Blake questioning my distinction between branches and library agencies, some interesting discussion of IMLS datasets, a pointer to an LJ site that really didn’t have any information on it, and some interesting refinements (that, sigh, I lost because my modem went down losing 15 minutes of work, work that I don’t intend to recreate at the moment).

Why do I care? Here are the last two paragraphs of the January 25 post:

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.

In other words, a consistent push toward negativity damages public libraries because it creates the perception that libraries are doomed anyway–that cities are already shutting them down.

 Some answers

So I went back to IMLS and looked at their annual publications, which actually do go back quite a ways.

If you’d like to look for yourself, go to the IMLS “Public Libraries in the United States Survey” page and click on “Publications” below that headline, not the Publications link on the left sidebar. As in the link pointed to below:

[Thank the Windows Clipping Tool for this--and my inability to draw a straight line for the funny-looking red arrow and sloppy highlighting.]

You should get a page titled “Public Libraries” with links for reports as recent as FY2009 and as far back as FY1989.

I looked at the reports for 2009, 1999 (a 10-year gap) and, given the suggestion that 0.4% of public libraries have closed since 2004, FY2004.

I also looked at three figures: Library agencies (“libraries”), Outlets (stationary, including branches) and Bookmobiles.

The number of outlets can be dramatically different than the number of libraries, especially in states like California that tend toward large agencies (and has 1,122 outlets as of FY2009, but only 181 libraries).

Here are the numbers according to IMLS, with my own totals:

Libraries Outlets Bookmobiles Total
2009 9,225 16,698 771 17,469
2004 9,198 16,543 825 17,368
1999 9,046 16,220 907 17,127

Do you see what I see? The 0.4% decline from 2004 to 2009…simply isn’t there. The overall trend of either libraries or branches (“outlets” is libraries and branches combined) shutting down…simply isn’t there.

Yes, there are fewer bookmobiles–6% fewer in 2009 than in 2004. But there are more libraries, more branches, and more total service points.

Actually, there is a number very close to 0.4% from 2004 to 2009: Namely, there are 0.58% more total service points in 2009 than in 2004. (Note that the “total” number adds Outlets and Bookmobiles, because Outlets already includes Libraries–except for those library agencies that are wholly bookmobiles.)

The 2009 IMLS report says that there are more libraries, right up front–but makes a point that the number of libraries hasn’t grown as fast as the number of people. That’s a much trickier discussion. Are people better served by lots and lots of very small locations or by fewer, larger, better-stocked, better-staffed locations? I don’t think there’s a simple answer. Nationwide, there appears to be roughly one library outlet for every 18,000 people–but that’s one of those averages that is as useful as saying that a river with wide banks and a deep central channel is an average of five feet deep.

One point that surprised me a little: The IMLS definition of a library requires paid staff and public funding. Given that a number of small libraries appear to be entirely operated by volunteers, I assume they have some minimal stipend that qualifies them.

I do know that there are lots of libraries around that don’t meet these definitions. A family member even operates one of them–and it’s quite appropriate that it wouldn’t show up in IMLS reports, as it has no public funding of any sort and doesn’t pretend to be an actual public library.

My problem with negativity

I don’t believe it serves the library field to repeat the false notion that American public libraries are shutting down all over the place. (Note that qualifier “American”–I really can’t speak to the situation in the UK.)

For that matter, I don’t believe that always stressing the negative side of library budget issues is healthy.

For what it’s worth, the 2009 IMLS report does note that public library funding has grown in constant dollars since 1999…and the funding per capita has grown since 1999. No, it hasn’t grown as much as usage, but overall, libraries were better funded at the depth of the recession than they were ten years earlier.

I think that’s an important story. I think it’s important that Oakland, a city with enormous budget and other problems, made a point of not cutting library services in this year’s budget–but that story doesn’t show up in the library literature as much as any cut would.

I think that’s a shame. Building from strength works better than trying to stave off weakness.

That’s why this post’s title begins “Public library openings”–because, on the whole, more libraries and branches have opened than have closed.

18 Responses to “Public library openings and my problem with negativity”

  1. Jeff Scott Says:

    Thank you for doing the research Walt. I remember this topic coming up several years ago about library closings (OCLC report?) and the answer was the same. Very few libraries have closed their doors and many end up re-opening those branches are providing other services near the original locations shortly thereafter. There is always pressure from the public and government officials to expand library hours and branches.

    I’m glad you have demonstrated that libraries are expanding. As any population grows, it seems likely that libraries will too.

    Also, I did try to comment in places about the California Library State Funding that it was not a defunding of all California Public Libraries. Anyone who thought that was remotely true knows absolutely nothing about libraries.

  2. walt Says:

    Jeff, I think I remember seeing something from you in that regard. Not that the loss of the $12 million isn’t important to some libraries–but I’d noted that a fair number of medium-sized and large libraries had already zeroed out state funding from their budgets on the assumption that it would never actually arrive.

    The one thing I can say in defense of some of the doom-cryers: There are a few states where state funding is enormously important to public libraries, although relatively few where it’s even 10% of total funding. Still, how they could think that California could be running libraries on $0.42 per person…

  3. Brett Bonfield Says:

    I think you’re right to emphasize the positive, and I agree that we’re in danger of turning gloomy scenarios into self-fulfilling prophecies.

    While I think your research is excellent, it’s important to note its limitations. The IMLS data, to the best of my knowledge, notes neither openings nor closings, just total libraries. The fact that, through September 30, 2009 (the close of FY 2009) we saw a trend of net increases in the number of libraries and an increasing level of funding is useful to know, but it’s also important to know how many libraries are closing and who is being affected by those closings.

    And, of course, it would be useful to know more about what’s happened since September 30, 2009 . While they may be anomalous, the library funding cuts I’m most aware of—those in New Jersey and Philadelphia—were active stories in 2010, e.g.:

    While Blake’s a great person to ask about closings, and LISNews is a great platform, do you know if anyone has been in touch either with COSLA or the appropriate administrators at any state libraries? Or the directors of the individual state library associations? My guess is they would have access to more up-to-date and granular data.

  4. walt Says:

    Brett: Thanks for the comment. You’re absolutely right: I still have no idea how many library agencies have closed permanently and how many have opened. Nor do I have granular data.

    But your links are examples of what I see as a problem: They discuss threats. Do you have actual data for public library agencies in New Jersey that closed and appear unlikely to reopen? (I add that, given my awareness of California and Oregon libraries that were gone forever or until the next budget cycle and responses from outraged locals, whichever came first.)

    As for COSLA and the state libraries/associations: Well, that’s the next stage of research, and it’s beyond me. After checking the websites of 5,958 public libraries, I’m a little researched out, barring some financing…and the results of such research, preferably written in a more neutral manner than the usual “if it bleeds, it leads” negativity, would make an interesting article or very long blog post.

  5. Somebody Says:

    I think the “concept” will die out – modern libraries are going to be QUIET open spaces to relax and read. Actual Printed Books will become precious and *gasp* we might revere them again. Where will me meet to hang out or discuss things? In public. What about storytime? Parents/Teachers can read to kids, can’t they? Where will I get my DVD’s? Netflix……

  6. walt Says:

    I’ll leave “Somebody”‘s comment (noting that I reserve the right to delete any unsigned/anonymous/pseudonymous comment for that reason), but I sharply disagree with what I think’s being said. Yes, there are and always have been alternatives to every public library service, if you have the money, time or energy. It’s no more likely that public libraries would become nothing more than book-reading sanctuaries than that books will disappear, which I regard as fundamentally improbable.

  7. Jean Costello Says:

    Great inquiry Walt – thanks for sticking with it.

    There’s seems to be a paucity of good data about our libraries. Every piece I examine is long on ideology and short on sound data collection and analysis. This is as true of reports touting library usage and impact as well as those of the gloom-and-doom variety. It’s surprising really, given the significant size and collective, national expense of our library network.

    I believe the lack of good library data hurts them big time. It mitigates management of individual units and also broader, richer dialogue about this valuable national institution.

  8. Amanda Says:

    Thank you for investigating. I am sick and tired of hearing doomsayers. When I decided to go into library school people kept pitying me as if when I graduated libraries would be gone. When I attended my first class, I realized libraries aren’t dying. They’re changing quite a bit, and because of that they are going to thrive. Now it just sounds to me that the doomsayers are just afraid of the change so people report negative news to enforce their opinions and create an inevitable situation for themselves.

    We really should be focusing on changing and innovating, not flag waving at every potential branch closing. Branches can be reopened, but they wont if we just throw up our hands in defeat.

  9. Charley Seavey Says:

    Oh my goodness, real data instead of running in circles screaming that the sky is falling. Well done!

    While not precisely analogous situations, this parallels in some ways the public library experience during the Great Depression. In the face of economic chaos far worse than that we presently face, American towns and cities persisted in opening new libraries. See the “The American Library and the Great Depression” article on my web page.


  10. Bob Molyneux Says:

    Wonderful. An all to rare good use of data!

    There is, in fact, a variable in this excellent series which takes account of changes in library entities: “STATSTRU.” If I may suggest, you might look at the longitudinal dataset I recompiled from this public library series when I was at NCLIS and have kept up to date since then:

    The list of variables (see the box on the right) includes STATSTRU and you can see the STATSTRU codes have varied a bit over the years but could be used to get a better handle on your question although I think you probably have it about right.

    You can see from the codes that libraries close, merge, separate again, are reconfigured…and on and on. I think a frequency of these codes by year would be pretty straightforward. Whether trends are easy to pick out is another question. I have never used the variable so I am not familiar with its characteristics over time.

    On the question of library data.

    In fact, the library world has a number of good series but lacks a critical mass of people who are skilled in working with data. We don’t use what we have. I suspect it is easier to complain about how bad things are than work with what existing data series we have. From such work we could learn from them what we can about libraries and to improve both those libraries and the data we have on them..


  11. walt Says:

    Bob: Thanks to you as well…and what started out as a semi-idle question seems to have become something more: I sense a C&I article on the horizon, with some additional checking of things such as the STATSTRU you note.

    I’m not sure I’m all that skilled at working with data–I tend to stick with fairly low-level analysis, and you’ll see no T-squared (or whatever) reporting in my book or articles–but I am numerate and interested in this stuff, and I have considerable interest in rigorous approaches and real-world significance. Now, if I could find funding for my 100% ongoing survey of public library presence in social networks…

  12. Bob Molyneux Says:


    No apologies are necessary. I am not so sure that a sense of libraries, a good handle on 7th grade arithmetic, and an acquaintance with spreadsheets does more good for libraries and for librarians than most of the published analytic literature.

    However, that is probably a conversation best handled with a beer in hand.


  13. walt Says:

    Bob: Agreed (esp. the second para, although I’m a wine drinker), and I’m not so much apologizing as clarifying. I prefer low-level statistics, with a dash of Excel-level “analysis” thrown in. And I do love to demonstrate heterogeneity, cases where “statistically valid” samples probably aren’t.

    I do recognize your name, with considerable respect; you’re among those who have taken statistics and analysis seriously and avoided overstatement.

  14. Bob Molyneux Says:


    thank you for your kind words.

    In your honor, I have a red I in my hand about which …well, Thurber said it best: “It’s a naive domestic Burgundy without any breeding, but I think you’ll be amused by its presumption.”

    I find the missed opportunities to use the abundant available data to aid the cause of libraries and the broader library function disheartening.

    I was serious in what I said about 7th grade arithmetic. My argument would probably begin with my experience being asked on occasion to review articles involving data submitted to journals. In almost all cases…I’d be inclined to say “all” but maybe not…of these articles I have reviewed have confused techniques in two great domains of Statistics (capital “S”): Inferential and Descriptive.

    True, the techniques overlap to an extent but to see tests of significance (t-tests are an example) on population data shows a fundamental misunderstanding of one of the major dichotomies in analytical techniques appropriate to data of varying provenance. Think Statistics 101. Bravura perhaps but with no understanding of what is going on so it may be impressive to some but meaningless.

    For example, I showed a dissertation proposal for a Ph.D. candidate of in a library school to the best Statistician I knew–math stat guy–and he called it a “parody of Statistics.” I infer then, that a central analytic technique used in analysis of data in the library field is often (?) invalid.

    Your analysis was appropriate to the problem, clever, and got at a deeper point. And compelling.

    FWIW: Blake is a treasure and LISNews is a part of every day. I bet you agree.


  15. walt Says:

    I don’t use the abbreviation “lol” much, but your paragraph beginning “For example” had me laughing out loud. Thanks for that!

    Yes, Blake is a treasure, even as I argue with him over slant and general opinion. This blog (and Cites & Insights and my personal site, is on LISHost, and I do look at LISNews every day.

    So I need to look at your source, I need to do some more thinking, and then I need to decide whether this is an article worth submitting to AmLib or whether it fits in Cites & Insights. Decisions, decisions. This time, though, good decisions: If the original question has taken on an unexpected life, it’s for good reason.

  16. Bob Molyneux Says:


    I did a frequency distribution on STATSTRU for FY 2009. I can send you the gory details separately if you send me your email address but here are what I think are the highlights in terms of your question and analysis:

    * It looks like no libraries closed.
    * 9,216 (99%) — of the libraries had no change in status.
    * 5 (0.05%) — absorbed by another entity
    * 1 merged with another entity.
    * 18 “add an existing [library] or Outlet not previously reported.”

    As I mentioned up thread, I am not familiar with the characteristics of this variable and if you wanted to do a more rigorous study, I would like to examine the variable over time and with more care.

    All that said, there is a larger point that we should not lose sight of. I believe you are correct that the number of library buildings has not fallen and, in fact, it looks like they have increased from what I see. However, there is a argument to be made that in some cases those buildings are being “hollowed out” to borrow a term. Use of public libraries appears to be going up from the best available evidence but there are many reports of staff layoffs and declining budgets. The data lag but public libraries in states I am familiar with are taking a major hit in funding.

    As a result, I don’t believe all is happy in library land with the state of public libraries at least and the national-level data we have are not reflecting it.If all this is true, the buildings stand but some number have smaller staffs and aging collections so service likely would be declining. That is what I mean by “hollowed out.”

    A related question is: does the purchasing power of library budgets keep up with inflation? Last time I examined the question for public libraries, my conclusion was that over all, they had but not all libraries’ budgets had. That was through FY 2008 data. From my examination of the Gerould-ARL data from about 5 years ago, I found that the handful of (now) ARL libraries for which we have continuous financial data from 1913, had also. These observations are from memory.


  17. walt Says:

    I recovered Bob Molyneux’s comment (above), so I’ll just provide my quick response (and he does have my email now).


    I agree that the financial situation of too many public libraries is unfortunate. I think the apparently-false notion that libraries are shutting down all over the place hurts in two ways: First, it’s not true, and plays into the hands of “futurists” and libertarians who would *like* it to be true. Second, it obscures the real issues–which include the love most people have for public libraries and the lack of connection between that love (which sometimes prevents closing of branches that really should be closed) and adequate financial support for libraries to be the best they can be.]


  18. walt Says:

    Here’s another comment (received as email and posted with the permission of the commenter, Will Kurt):

    I just recently stumbled across your blog post “How many US public libraries have actually closed?” and you mentioned in it that you’d appreciate any hard data on the issue.

    Over the last month I’ve been doing a lot of library data analysis over at my blog ‘Library Data’ (, and your quest to find this data intrigued me so I’ve started working with the raw data from IMLS.

    Here’s my first post on the topic:

    In that data set we’re looking at ~17000 libraries + branches, and IMLS does record official ‘closings’ rather than ‘temporary closings’, so those number should be close to what you where looking for.

    Here’s the actually data:
    year total_closings branch_closings
    2008 101 51
    2009 99 52

    Later this week I’m going to try to see if I can coax numbers going further back than 2008 from the data (I think this should be possible). I actually have a more ambitious goal of looking into whether or not logistical regression can be used to predict the likelihood that a library will close in the next 5 years or so, or at least gain insight into which trends are most predictive of impending closing.

    I hope you enjoy!
    And my response:
    Thanks. I’ve bookmarked the post (and subscribed to the feed).

    Those figures (ab. 0.5% per year) seem high, and I suspect that they don’t account for reopening–e.g., the Gilroy libraries, which were closed for about 18 months, and a similar situation in Oregon. The closure is “permanent” (that is, at the time of closing, there’s no direct path to reopening) but not lasting (people in a community that itself is not shutting down tend to strive hard to reopen a closed library). But it is another data source.

    I should note that, as far as I can tell, the total number of library systems is growing over the years (albeit not the number of libraries per capita, a very different issue). Putting all these things together in a meaningful way continues to be an interesting issue.
    –and, a few minutes later—

    Now that I think about it: While I haven’t yet started trying to deal with the IMLS tables directly, one way to get some handle on actual long-term closures would be to get a *list* of the libraries reported as closed in a given year, then do some searching to see whether those libraries have reopened, say, two or three years later. (So, right now, 2008 closures would be ripe for re-investigation, and 2009 closures might be interesting.)


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