The Public Library Renaissance

Fewer people bought books, CD’s, and DVD’s in 2008 than in the year before. The number of moviegoers and concertgoers shrank last year, too, though rising ticket prices in both cases offset declining sales. Theater attendance, overall, is also down.

We usually hear about these declines in isolation. But taken together, they seem to suggest that cultural pursuits across the board are on the decline. Indeed, if nobody seems to be out buying books, movies, and music, what are they doing with their leisure time instead?

Apparently: going to the library. The Boston Globe reports that public libraries around the country are posting double-digit percentage increases in circulation and new library-card applications:

Checkouts of books, CD’s, and DVD’s are up 15 percent at the main library in Modesto, Calif. In Boulder, Colo., circulation of job-hunting materials is up 14 percent. Usage of the Newark Public Library in New Jersey is up 17 percent. Library-card requests have increased 27 percent in the last half of 2008 in San Francisco. The Boise Public Library reported a 61 percent increase in new library cards in 2008. In Brantley County, Ga., library computer usage was up 26 percent in the last quarter.

Dubner has wondered whether public libraries could be invented today if they didn’t already exist, and we’ve blogged about how museum attendance dwarfs major-league sports game attendance.

As consumer spending recedes in the face of the credit crisis, will libraries become more popular than shopping malls as a destination?

Maybe it’s time to ask your local librarian when she’s planning to install the food court.

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  1. Joseph says:

    I’ve gone back to using the library exclusively in recent months. I used to keep my read books like trophies on my shelf, but swallowing my pride has been monetarily worth it.

    With extensive inter-library loan systems, it is extremely rare to not be able to get my hands on a book.

    With late fines there is also incentive to read a book, knowing that it won’t be around forever.

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  2. J. Daniel Smith says:

    A Starbucks-type place at libraries would certainly make them more attractive. Where I live, both “Barnes and Noble” and “Borders” have in-store coffee/snack shops.

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  3. matt says:

    The Arlington County (VA) Library system is fantastic, and since moving here about 5 years ago, I have drastically reduced the number of books I buy, while increasing the number of books I read.

    The entire catalog is browse-able online, and books can be placed on hold and sent to the branch of your choice for pickup. Every week or two, I open up two browser windows; Amazon’s recommendations page for me (which I continue to refine constantly), and the library’s page. I find interesting titles on Amazon, and place them on hold with the library.

    At any point in time, I can log-in to see when books are due, how far down the hold list I might be for a certain book, and what is available to be picked up (they give you a 5-day window once they’re ready.)

    Just a tremendous public resource.

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  4. Mark says:

    Is it possible that library card applications spike during election years? I was coerced into filling out the papers for one when I registered to vote – but I haven’t been back since.

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  5. Paul Czene says:

    Come to Vancouver’s public library – we’ve got a food court.

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  6. Tenorca says:

    At the risk of sounding curmudgeonly, I think this is directly attributable to a change in attitude towards mass produced media that began with the online file sharing of music. We went from a place where CD collections were prized and cost thousands; now you can rip an entire external harddrive, literally hundreds of albums, in an afternoon. Once file sharing began, music became, essentially, free to the consumer. Certain people I know now nearly expect their music to come to them free. As movies become viewable online (and they are, obviously), website surfaced that did the same thing—it’s possible now to watch “The Wrestler” or “Gran Torino” online and they’ve barely—if at all—reached theatres.

    What I’m saying is that people expect their media instantly. And gratis. So it’s not that surprising, in that context, that library check-outs are up. The entire mindset when it comes to music & movies has changed—what was once a luxury good is now expected and, what’s more, expected for free.

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  7. Matt B says:

    My local library participates in a cooperative system with 53 other libraries in the area (Northeastern NJ). I can go online, browse the library catalog, place as many requests for books that I want, and have the book delivered to my local library for me. All for free!

    As much as I love just browsing for books at Barnes & Noble, and reading jackets and being in awe of all the new titles (I get inspired in a geeky way by all the different types of books in the marketplace), you can’t beat the library’s deal.

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  8. Suzie says:

    The Houston Public Library has just opened a coffee shop in the library. Your library card gets you a 10% discount!

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