Trend Turnaround | Materials Survey 2016

LJ’s 2016 materials survey of public libraries nationwide was full of surprises, with long-standing trends suddenly turned on their heads.

After rising steadily in the last decade, ebook and media budgets and circulation in U.S. public libraries have stalled as a percentage of the materials mix. In fact, though the circulation of downloadable media increased last year—up 14.6 percent for downloadable audio and 13.8 percent for downloadable movies—media circulation as a whole was down.

But circulation did rise in one area: print books. Though print book budgets were generally flat, with fewer than one in five libraries reporting increases, print book circulation marched upward by two percent after having fallen significantly over the last five years. Still, print fiction, which has seen continuous growth in both expenditures and circulation over the last decade, saw its circulation tumble slightly compared with nonfiction.

As a percentage of the overall materials budget, print books did drop three percentage points. With ebook and media budgets going nowhere, what benefited? Electronic products other than ebooks, which this year leaped to nine percent of the materials budget on average and posted gains at every size library. Just a year ago, after a continuous downward slide over half a dozen years, electronic products claimed only six percent of the budget.

Clearly, LJ’s 2016 materials survey of public libraries nationwide was full of surprises, with long-standing trends suddenly turned on their heads. The shifts weren’t huge, but they were certainly noticeable. Was this year an anomaly or a sign of something new?

For context, let’s begin by noting that respondents to this year’s materials survey report almost imperceptible growth in materials budgets (0.1 percent), with budgets barely budging across all size libraries. (By contrast, respondents to LJ’s budget survey—representing a different, more expansive slice of the library market—reported materials budget growth averaging 3.7 percent; see “Gaining Ground Unevenly,” LJ 2/1/15, p. 28.) The 0.1 percent uptick partly explains the unprepossessing outlays for print, ebook, and media cited above. Materials budgets averaged $813,000, with libraries serving populations under 10,000 claiming $46,000 and those serving populations 500,000 and above claiming $4.5 million.

As a percentage of the materials budget, print books fell on average to 56 percent from last year’s 59 percent, taking up only half or less of materials budgets at libraries serving populations 100,000 and above (see “Materials Budget Breakdown,” this page). Ebooks accounted for seven percent of the budget, as they have since 2013. Media as a whole retained its 24 percent share from last year, with downloadable media showing no sign of grabbing funding from physical media. Only electronic products (excluding ebooks) showed growth as a percentage of the budget, with every size library posting an increase.

With funding for new materials so constrained, it’s hardly surprising that circulation was constrained as well, averaging a 1.9 percent increase—and only because libraries serving populations 10,000–24,999 had a mammoth outlier increase of 14 percent. Otherwise, respondents reported generally flat or slightly falling circulation, with the smallest libraries faring the worst and Northeastern and suburban libraries faring the best.


Average findings based on population served, 2015

% % % % % % % %
Books 56 62 60 63 60 50 46 42
Ebooks 7 5 5 6 6 10 10 10
Audiobooks 7 8 10 7 6 5 6 4
Downloadable audio 3 2 2 3 3 2 4 4
DVD/Blu-ray 12 15 10 10 9 14 11 13
Downloadable movies 0.6 0 0.7 0.4 0.6 0.8 1.6 1.2
Music CDs/downloadable 2 0.9 2 2 3 3 4 4
Other electronic products 9 6 7 7 10 11 15 13
Other 4 2 3 2 3 5 4 9
SOURCE: LJ materials Survey 2016

Print vs. ebook

Compared with last year, print book circulation rose two notches to average 60 percent of total circulation, while ­ebook circulation remained stuck at five percent overall. Certainly, many library ebook collections are growing; 52 percent of respondents say their ­ebook budgets increased, with ­ebook budgets rising on average 11.4 percent, though their share of the materials budget hasn’t grown. But this year’s figures echo the recent stutter in the ­ebook market, which saw sales fall even as independent bookstores ­resurged.

As the book industry debates what comes next, some of our respondents raised the same issues about ebooks as industry observers. Notes Prudence ­Fallon, Tiverton Public Library, RI, “There are still problems with consistency of format, ease, the ability to download ­ebooks, and the charging of ebook reader devices. Until all ebooks and ereaders perform consistently and the same way across all formats and devices, users will become frustrated and reach for ‘old reliable,’ the book.”

Other reasons offered for flat ebook circulation are more library-specific. “The cost of purchasing an ebook is still way too high, so I cannot provide the depth of selection in the ebook collection that I can in the print,” says Mary Wallace Moore, Smyrna Public Library, GA. Adds Nick Szegda, Menlo Park Library, CA, “The difficulties in dealing with DRM software to get your ‘free’ library ebook make it less ­attractive than it could be. Also an issue: restricted ‘copies’ of an ebook must be purchased. Can’t we go to a per download model?”

Finally, even with ebook sales going soft (if only temporarily), many readers obviously continue to love their ­ereaders—which might be having a direct impact on ebook circulation. Explains Clancy Pool, Whitman County Library, WA, “We believe that patrons interested in ebooks have already bought devices and are using OverDrive, which has caused a leveling of ebook use.”

Fiction switch

None of this means that libraries and ­ebooks are calling it quits. In fact, ­ebooks seem to be having a real impact on print fiction circulation, which last year hit a high of 67 percent compared with nonfiction. Fiction still dominates in print, showing the greatest strength in the Northeast and in smaller or ­rural libraries, but it’s sunk a few points to 65 percent, which respondents generally agree corresponds to heavy fiction usage in the ebook arena. In surveyed libraries overall, fiction accounted for 76 percent of ebook budgets and 79 percent of ­ebook circulation.

Overeall, this year’s book vs. ebook circulation looks much like last year’s, with a few intriguing twists. Mystery, general fiction, and romance remain the top three fiction genres, though general fiction does much better in print and romance in ebook format (see “Top Fiction Circulators,” this page). Print remains the preferred format for Christian fiction, with only 22 percent of respondents calling it a top ebook circulator. But sf and literary fiction fared better in ebook format—a first for literary fiction, now cited by 25 percent of respondents as tops in ebooks compared with only 16 percent last year. Print literary fiction has correspondingly plummeted to a 15 percent shout-out this year, compared with 22 percent a year ago.

In print nonfiction, cookbooks again take the cake, cited as a top circulator by a whopping 85 percent of respondents compared with just 50 percent in 2006 (see “Top Nonfiction Circulators,” p. 34). Among ebook circulators, however, cookbooks rank fifth. The big news concerns health/medicine, which once dominated nonfiction but fell to second place in 2011. Traditionally, this survey has netted health/medicine with fitness/weight loss titles, but netted or unnetted, it sits in third place in print. (Unnetted, it’s fourth place in ebooks.) Meanwhile, biography/memoir continues a meteoric rise, reaching second place in print and remaining on top in ­ebooks.

In other areas of circulation, media accounted for 32 percent overall, down two percent from last year notwithstanding the big downloadables bump-up. With downloadable audio averaging only three percent of materials budgets and downloadable movies drawing under one percent at all but the largest libraries, these products are still too small a part of the entire materials package to have much impact on circulation overall. Meanwhile, DVD circulation fell, and with DVDs the biggest chunk of media circulation at 21 percent overall, that downswing ­resonated.

LJ’s respondents generally agree that DVD circulation is down because of the ease, convenience, and ready availability of commercial streaming services. Confirms Smyrna PL’s Moore, “I think the proliferation of streaming video content such as Amazon Prime, Hulu, Netflix, HBO Go, etc., has created too much competition for our DVD collection.” Other media circulation—physical audiobooks and music—have remained static as a percentage of circulation, coming in at six percent and three percent, respectively, overall.

Media have been a growth opportunity in public libraries in the past decade, leaping from 18 percent to 24 percent of the budget overall. Perhaps, with proliferating media formats, librarians are pausing to fine-tune their collections and figure out what their patrons ­really want. For instance, at Phoenix PL, where media make up 26 percent of the collection and 37 percent of the circulation, cleaning out and redirecting the collection has led (at least temporarily) to dropped circulation. For downloadable audio, “We are finding that we don’t need a wide range of teen and children’s spoken word, and we are going to focus more on the most popular authors,” explains Sullivan.

The music collection has been weeded, teen music moved to the adult collection to make way for other initiatives, and the decision made that “music for children is not needed except for Disney and a few really popular artists,” Sullivan continues. But she adds that “our hoopla and Freegal use is growing for music. We believe most of our use is by customers who want to download a few songs.” And that brings us to e-products, a growth area highlighted by this survey.

E-product boom

In 2008, e-products claimed ten percent of the materials budget overall but sank to six percent last year. Now the budget line has bounced back up to nine percent, with libraries serving populations 50,000 and above devoting ten percent or more to these products. What happened?

“I think it has to do with the excellent selection of digital resources,” says Menlo Park Library’s Szegda. “Hoopla is an absolutely fantastic product that just keeps getting better. Digital magazine circ (we have Zinio) keeps going up. And this year, we added, too. Usage is good, and it increases the library’s cool factor.” As Szegda sees it, constant vendor innovation is truly benefiting public libraries and their patrons.

Netflix, hoopla, OverDrive, 3M, Mango, Zinio, Flipster,, Universal Class, Treehouse, Skillsoft, not to mention Maker space–related software—e-products keep proliferating, and public libraries are taking advantage. Notes Kathleen Sullivan, Phoenix Public Library, “If one factors in the simultaneous-use items (hoopla, ProQuest News Stand, Flipster, and Zinio), our e-branch had the highest circulation of any of our branches.”

Of course, electronic reference remains part of the e-products mix. Notes Tiverton PL’s Fallon, “Students (adults and younger) and instructors are becoming more comfortable with digital resources, using print reference books much less and reaching for the computer.”

Doubtless, growing patron e-literacy will make for increasing and increasingly sophisticated demand, as will the growing number of e-products, all of which should add to the e-products budget. Meanwhile, librarians will have to keep calibrating the swirl of materials through libraries, looking for the best mix possible. More choices, more choice making; whether this year’s survey was anomalous, that’s the real trend.

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