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 felt almost guilty for not paying for the enjoyment "

Join your library's Friends of the Library organization-- dues are usually around $30-50 a year and it all goes to benefit the library. Plus one of the perks is usually getting first crack at the library booksales-- before they open to the general public.

And for those of you who want coffee or food courts: uh, many libraries have at least a coffee cart, or at least allow covered containers. Just please tell the staff if you accidentally spill something.

scientist at large

I think all kids should have the experience of spending some time exploring a library like the NY public library. I took my daughter there a few years ago and she started to do some research on Marie Antoinette, the person (not the personna) and is still interested. It is as if this library holds all kinds of secrets waiting to be discovered.


Other than the library, people, especially those from the younger generation, might be spending their time online. Social news and online forums like reddit, somethingaweful, 4chan, etc, have been known to breed memes -- a new form of internet culture that would erupt over night and become internationally recognized phenomena. Ever heard of Rickroll, lolcat, or bel-air?

Christopher Wink

I guess you guys have never been to Philadelphia:


I'm a librarian: we don't charge late fees in my service because it:

a) doesn't discourage people who bring books back late, except if they are children (small disposable incomes).

b) costs us staff time to lift the block and process the loan. I'm paid a dollar every two minutes (I'm in another country with a smaller dollar) so the ten cents per day we would have traditionally charged cannot pay for the time it takes me to count, receipt, report, and bank the money.

c) encourages lateness by making lateness a paid service (like the child minding example in chapter 1 of the book).

d) costs time even when people do not break our rules, because to -comply- many people phone us and say "I have some books due today and I can't bring them back until (tomorrow/the weekend/after I get out of hospital/whenever). Can I have a renewal? Our answer is "Sure!" but answering this question has just cost the library service at least $1 in staff time.



I run a small branch library in Connecticut and noticed a dramatic spike in circulation beginning a year ago. Our extensive and already popular DVD collection was flying out the door. Turns out two local DVD stores had closed in town. Since then we've seen continuous growth in all types of materials. I've beefed up the resume/job hunting collection and can't keep the books on the shelves.

Many libraries have cafes or self-service coffee bars, but most will allow covered drinks and neat food. (Please, no Cheetohs!)

We also offer lots of personal service! You may be amazed at what you'll find at your local public library.


I echo #25's sentiment.

If the rest of you haven't heard, Philly has been handling libraries and the recession in an egregious manner. Believe it or not, it is currently dominating the recent discourse in local politics and media, especially among Philly progressives.

Such publicity regarding library closures has dwarfed even crime reports, which is a usual bedtime story told by the city's nightly news correspondents.


I guess you've never been to Singapore.

The libraries here all have a little cafe, with prices rather less than Starbucks.

And our librarians blog too!

Avi Rappoport

I know an economist who pointed out that public libraries are socialist: the community buys the books and distributes them on request. Works for me!


Maybe people don't have money to buy books or go to the movies in this economy with its high unemployment. I don't know just a thought.


In reference to Nos. 25 and 28, I've been following closely what's going on in Philly, partly because I lived there for five years, but mostly because I now live in Josephine County, in Southern Oregon, where the ENTIRE library system was closed for over 18 months.

A grassroots group formed nonprofit Josephine Community Libraries (, and we've reopened the libraries on a model like that of public radio and public television, in which we offer memberships but everyone has access to the library regardless of membership status.

It's definitely not a model that would fit every community, nor should it be, but at least it's gotten the doors of the library open for now. And, possibly, it might prove helpful to other communities facing dire economic situations like ours.


Many British libraries are to allow users to take in and consume food and drink, and to use their mobile phones and ipods inside the library in hopes of enticing more people in. The extraordinary amount of replacement of books by computers and of English language materials with ethnic minority languages however means that many monolingual English speakers find there is little for them in our libraries.
Whilst British libraries certainly needed updating, what was needed was heating at currently expected levels and comfortable seating instead of the Dickensian standards still too common. What we shall end up with is rather chilly places full of teenagers using the pcs to do their homework whilst consuming and spilling crisps and coca cola and shouting banalities into their mobile phones.
How I wish that British libraries could grasp the notion of providing their services online - as the Chicago library has done. I would be very happy to pay a substantial fee to be allowed access to such a fantastic resource. Instead, if I want to access a similar range of materials I have to travel to London to the British Library - at a travel cost of over ?150 each time.



"...when she..."? Is that a sexist, stereotypical idea of librarians? There are plenty of men in the profession.

Mike B

I don't think the Food Court idea is going to work out so well. I mean how are they going to handle the returns?


Thanks for reminding me, I love libraries but haven't been to my public library in a long time. I've tended to assume it won't be open when I want it, but really I've just lost the habit. Libraries are one of the great community sources we have, let's nurture them and use them!


As a librarian, I say Yahoo and welcome back!

I frequented the library for years before I realized it was my calling, so to speak. I can't imagine why someone would buy books they are only going to read once. And as to whether they would be *allowed* today, I think yes. We pay a huge amount for books, and its great publicity for the authors.

Think about what we do. Where else can you walk out with 100s of dollars of materials, going on good faith you'll bring them back? Most fines at my library are waived. We want people to keep coming back.

Also, libraries bridge the digital divide. I am always surprised at the number of people who don't realize how many Americans don't have their own pc's and/or internet access at home. Right now, much of my day is spent helping people apply for jobs. Most applications now are online only, including filing for unemployment benefits.

Remember, also in these economic times our budgets are cut too. Many libraries hours may be reduced, just when the public may really need us most. Hiring freezes are in place, and most facilities run on a skeleton crew. I doubt food courts are in many libraries foreseeable future if they're not there already, though not a bad idea. The library is definitely a place where kids,many of whom have no parent at home come to *hang out*. Nothing makes me happier than lureing them away from the computer long enough to, gasp, read a book!

Please, if you have the means ,donate and join the friends of the library! Generally, libraries' budgets draw from the same money as police, EMS and such. Imagine most town managers having to decide between and extra EMS worker or another librarian...



We are fortunate to have a fantastic library branch within walking distance here in Phoenix, and we have used it on a regular basis for many years for both books and music. The selection is pretty impressive for a public library.

Our library is also in the process of installing a cafe on the first floor.

I hope that libraries continue to be relevant because there are many books and musical artists that I would not have risked the money to discover if I would have had to purchase the item instead of checking it out.


My friend in MA says that the penalty for returning a book late at his library is that you have to play "Dance Dance Revolution" for 10 minutes. I think that is a great idea for so many reasons.


Library use has characteristically gone up during hard economic times. So, when government failed in providing library services to Josephine County, Oregon, an enthusuastic, optimistic and dedicated group of volunteers brought the public library back to life. What amazes me is that there are still a vocal few who not only don't support the library financially, but also criticize it. The price of the library is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation: What can they be thinking...?

Sudha M

Our local library branches have a small coffee shop/cafe, a teen game room, a cozy fire place, and it really feels like a Barnes and Noble except you get books and dvds for free. They have ESL and citizenship classes for immigrants, story times for kids. They let patrons borrow video games. They organize Wii game nights and Twilight fan club for teens. The new libraries are fun and welcoming, vastly different from the staid places where stern librarians gave disapproving looks.

Reg the Singapore food court +library, the country has libraries branches in malls as a convenience. I can't see that happening in the US somehow.