I thought I did a pretty good job of demolishing this long-standing myth (“all academic libraries have falling circulation”) in the March 2013 Cites & Insights. looking at circulation between 2008 and 2010. I was astonished to see at least one high-profile academic librarian dismiss my findings saying there were Studies saying this was true (all such studies based on either a subset of libraries or the *overall* figures), therefore…well, the “therefore” wasn’t quite clear, but had to be either “you’re doing the math wrong” or “the facts don’t matter.”
My sense is that the facts don’t matter to librarians who want to use “circulation’s falling everywhere, that’s just the way it is” as part of an argument to stop bothering with collections–but that’s a complicated argument.
I’m starting to work on a self-published book that will serve as a complement to the 2002-2012 study of academic library serials, “books” (all acquisitions except current serials) and “remainder” (everything else) spending. The complement will look at some other factors–circulation per capita, book coverage, book spending per capita, professional librarians per thousand students and overall staffing per thousand students. (Expect to see it in late May or early June.)
In working with spreadsheets to make this book reasonably easy to put together (I’m learning to love named Excel columns a lot) I found it worthwhile to add yes/no columns showing rise or fall of some metrics (where no change counts as a rise, but absolutely no change almost never happens). This made it easier to answer three subsidiary questions to the first question.
The first question: Is it true that all academic libraries show falling circulation from year to year?
The answer: Not even close–and I’m making it tougher by using circulation per capita, given that academic libraries serve a lot more students now than they did in 2002 (about 30% more overall).
For any given biennium, between 35% and 45% of all academic libraries have higher per capita circulation than they did two years ago. (As far as I can tell, the “all” isn’t remotely true for any significantly large subset of academic libraries.) (45% was 2010 compared to 2008, the best biennium for circulation growth.)
A related question: Well, then, is it true that all academic libraries have lower circulation in 2012 than they did in 2002, even if there were some temporary rises?
The answer: Closer, but still not even close. The percentage of libraries with more circulation per capita in any given year than in 2002 ranges from about 36% to about 25% (for 2012). That’s still one out of every four libraries.
Those were easy questions. The three others are a little tougher, and they deal with extremes:
First: What percentage of academic libraries have had rising circulation per capita every biennium since 2002?
The answer, as far as I can tell, for the 2,594 libraries I’m studying (which represent 95% of all academic library spending–ones excluded either weren’t around for the full 2002-2012 period or failed to respond to the NCES survey in either 2002 or 2012): Very few: actually six, or 0.2%.
So if you wanted to cast the most negative light possible, you could say that (almost) all academic libraries have seen circulation drop during at least some portion of the last decade.
Second: What percentage of academic libraries have had falling circulation per capita every biennium since 2002?
Now, actually, this to me is the implication of the (paraphrased) universal assertion: the answer to this question should be 100%, or very close to it.
The actual number: 153 libraries or 5.9%.
That’s right: Only six percent of academic libraries have had consistently falling circulation per capita from 2002 through 2012.
Third: What percentage of academic libraries have had higher per capita circulation than 2002 in every biennium since then?
This is a different question than “how many have consistently grown?” as a library could, for example, have 10% more circulation in 2004 than in 2002, then drop 5% in 2006…
The answer: 208 or 8.1%.
So: more libraries have consistently had higher circulation since 2002 than they did in 2002, than have had consistently falling circulation.
And, of course, most libraries are in the middle–just under 94% have seen circulation grow some times and shrink some times.
But that’s not a convenient message if you’re trying to dismiss collections.