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.


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.

J. Daniel Smith

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.


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.


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.

Paul Czene

Come to Vancouver's public library - we've got a food court.


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.


Matt B

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.


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


I'm frugal. I dont like clutter. I get a book and some videos, I watch the videos, read the books, take notes and return them. Of course my mother is a librarian, so it is only natural to me to use the library, but it just makes sense.
Our library has laptops you can check out, a little cafe, you can download audiobooks and reserve books, its GREAT. And its "free"!!!


But didn't digital music sales continue to increase in 2008?


I use the library for all the reasons that matt (comment 3) gave.

I also used to be a book whore - would buy anything and everything. Now I take it out of the library. Have saved a fortune.

It's also the fact that a three weeks overdue fine is still ridiculously less than the price of buying the book itself. You have to laugh a bit when the conversation at the library is something like,

" I'd like to take these books out" (total value $100)
"Oh, you have a $5 fine from these previous books"(another $100 value)
"Oh, sorry. Can I pay next time?"
"Can I take these out anyway?"

Also something to remember that (at least in Canada) the library is one of the first stops for new citizens - there are books in many languages, "settling in" information, support groups - you name it.

Mr. Winston

Funny, I was just at the library on Monday checking out DVD's. As I was waiting in line, I looked across the room and thought, "how am I able to get DVD's to rent for free?" I felt almost guilty for not paying for the enjoyment I am going to get from watching movies for free. Of course, they weren't DVD's that I would have paid to rent, but since they were there, I figured why not just check them out for a few days. Nevertheless, I thought to myself that if one day I am blessed with vast sums of money, it would be nice to make a contribution to my local library for the services I've used all too often. I guess my taxes already do that.


Those of us who work in libraries are thrilled with the increased attention and usage. Many folks who weren't regular users probably missed the trend toward the expansion of popular media collections - including DVD's and video games. We have downloadable content too, not to mention pre-loaded audiobooks. We're also making libraries more like book stores - allowing snacks and covered drinks. Some even have small cafe's.
So, welcome back to your public library! We're so very glad to see you!


I wonder if Netflix is also up, based on people declining interest in actually owning physical copies of movies.


I just ordered a library card from Arlington County this weekend, and Matt's comment makes me all the more excited. That said, I don't think libraries would be invented today if they didn't already exist. If they weren't already established, the publishers would go on a lawsuit spree similar to the one the RIAA and MPAA have been on for a decade now...

or perhaps torrent networks are the libraries of the 21st century?


Libraries rock. I'm actually surprised at the % of the population that doesn't use them. It's huge. I think if more people were using the resource we'd all be better off.

However I don't see one replacing the other. I'm both a book buyer and a Library patron; some you've just got to own. The Library is a way to scout and keep a flow going that most people can't afford.



I don't see why not. It isn't like libraries get books for free-in fact, have you ever seen the price they pay for children's books? Fail to return one and you will. Libraries are a huge market for publishers. If a writer gets his book picked up by every library in the U.S. he is sitting pretty.


Allow me to add to the already substantial pile of praise heaped on the Arlington County, VA public library system. The staff is excellent, the ability to browse for and recheck books online is a blessing, and the collection is immense. For the first time in my life, I'm getting virtually all of my reading material from the library!

It is not humanly possible to say enough nice things about the nation's librarians. In my experience, there are few more noble professions or people.


RE: food court.

Mr Dubner and the other Chicago people on this blog may remember the top floor restaurant in the Harold Washington Library building (the main library for Chicago, in downtown). I ate there a few times, but alas, it's since closed. A nice use of an airy, open area with plenty of skylights, the top of the library used to have a nice (if overpriced) lunch buffet. What makes me miss it more is that I can see the roof of the library from my downtown office.

King Politics

I like how public libraries have expanded into CD, DVD and audiobook rentals. They've done a remarkably good job of keeping up with the marketplace.