Under the Surface | Materials Survey 2017

The findings of LJ’s latest materials survey, which tracks budgets and circulation at public libraries equitably distributed throughout the nation by size, type, and region

Last year, public library materials budgets barely budged, growing by 0.7 percent on average and moving up significantly only at libraries serving populations of 500,000-plus. Print book budgets saw no growth at all for the third year in a row. Circulation, too, was static, growing only 0.6 percent overall and passing one percent only at libraries serving populations of 10,000–24,999. But beneath this flat surface, materials budgets and circulation showed a surprising amount of movement.

Such were the findings of LJ’s latest materials survey, which tracks budgets and circulation at public libraries equitably distributed throughout the nation by size, type, and region. (Owing to a different sample, materials budgets fared better in LJ’s 2017 budget survey; see “Keeping Up,” LJ 2/1/17, p. 22.) Perhaps the biggest finding is that at 27 percent, media—that is, physical and downloadable audiobooks, movies, and/or music—account for more than a quarter of the materials budget for the first time. Their budget share has grown nearly ten percent since 2006, when LJ began tracking materials breakdowns.


Interestingly, despite this budget uptick, media circulation stumbled slightly, falling one percent to 31 percent of total circulation overall. This slip can be attributed to a 1.4 percent decrease in the circulation of physical audiobooks. Otherwise, media materials are looking rosy, with downloadables leading the way. For instance, the circulation of downloadable audio was up more than nine percent overall, with 66 percent of respondents reporting an increase and only four percent reporting a decrease. The budget for downloadable audio, though still small at four percent, has doubled in two years alone.

Meanwhile, DVD/Blu-ray circulation has leaped nearly four percent, and though the share of libraries offering downloadable movies has stayed fairly constant at 45 percent overall, circulation rose a healthy 6.6 percent at libraries that do offer this format. Tellingly, this is the first year that downloadable movies received a budget share at libraries serving populations under 10,000, even if the percentage was a scant 0.1 percent.

The budget and circulation numbers of individual media may still be smallish, but their overall strength and patterns of growth reveal what the materials mix at public libraries will look like in the future. Print remains a part of that mix, of course, but it continues to trend downward.

As already indicated, print budgets are flat, with only 20 percent of respondents reporting an increase. Print accounted for 57 percent of circulation overall, down ten points in just six years and three points since the previous survey’s anomalous uptick. With print steadily weakening and media skittering slightly, circulation as a whole last year was rescued by a strong ebook showing.

The ebook market

This year, 93 percent of respondents reported having ebooks in their collections, about the same as last year, though seven in ten libraries serving populations under 10,000 still do not collect them. Overall, the ebook bite of the budget is nearly nine percent, having grown from one percent in 2009, and libraries serving populations of 500,000-plus reserve nearly 24 percent of their materials budgets on average for ebooks.

Better funding for ebooks, as well as for movies and downloadable audio, seems to have come at the expense of other electronic products (e.g., databases), which last year saw an un­expected increase but have been generally sliding downward for ten years. This year, such electronic products accounted for only five percent of materials budgets, the worst showing since LJ began tracking this figure.

Ebooks now average eight percent of total materials circulation, a figure that has quadrupled since 2011. The largest libraries posted the greatest gains, with ebook circulation at those serving populations of 500,000-plus increasing 14.4 percent on average and bouncing sky high at those serving populations of 100,000–499,999, which posted a 22.3 percent increase overall.

This strong showing is particularly important following last year’s survey, when ebook circulation had stalled at a time when ebook sales were also slowing. Yet while the ebook market remains soft, with the American Publishers Association reporting a 20 percent sales plunge in the first half of 2016, ebooks are currently asserting themselves in the library market.

There’s one last shining star in the materials firmament: apps. Since 2012, when LJ began tracking apps, the percentage of public libraries offering them has increased from 15 percent to a whopping 84 percent. Over 90 percent of urban and suburban libraries offer apps, as do fully 74 percent of rural libraries.

The vast majority of these are specific to the library market, of which by far the most popular deliver digital content, whether ebooks, video, ­periodicals, or music. Apps that enable access to the library’s other services have not yet achieved much penetration. Apps that are marketed for general consumer use are rarely included in the collection.

Subject shifts

Jointly, books and ebooks make up 65 percent of materials circulation, but how subjects circulate can vary markedly by format and, of course, from year to year and locale to locale. On a grand scale, the division between fiction and nonfiction has grown ever wider since 2005, when fiction first overtook nonfiction in the book budget (see “The Turnaround,” LJ 2/15/05, p. 36).

Overall, 65 percent of print book budgets goes to fiction, which then claims 70 percent of books checked out—a figure up from 64 percent in 2011, when LJ began tracking fiction vs. nonfiction circulation. The spread is even greater in ebooks, with fiction claiming on average 81 percent of both budget and circulation.

Over the years, LJ’s survey has consistently shown that the smaller the library, the greater the demand for fiction. This year, libraries serving populations under 10,000 report that fiction claims 84 percent of circulation, while mid-sized libraries see that figure slip to 67 percent. At the largest libraries, those serving populations of 500,000-plus, fiction accounts for a much smaller share of books checked out, though at 55 percent on average fiction is still more than half their ­circulation.


Mystery on top

Once again, mystery takes pride of place as the top fiction genre, cited by 97 percent of respondents as among their top five print circulators. In fact, the order of the top ten fiction genres has remained constant over the last three years, though within those rankings most subjects have gained or lost strength. For instance, second-ranked general fiction dropped six percentage points, to 81 percent, while third-ranked romance jumped up seven points to 73 percent, even though the rankings stayed the same.

With a 41 percent showing, Christian fiction is holding reasonably steady after a big leap up from 2011’s ten percent. But at 11 percent, sf/fantasy has lost three points since the previous survey, shifting down from 21 percent in 2014 and 28 percent in 2011, likely owing to booming ebook usage in that genre. Meanwhile, literary fiction has climbed steadily since 2011 and is now cited by 21 percent of respondents as making their top five in print. In fact, it’s a big circulator at fully a third of libraries in the Northeast.

While mystery is beloved nationwide, taste in fiction genres show some significant variations by setting. Romance, for instance, is far more popular in urban and suburban libraries than rural libraries, where only 60 percent of respondents cite it as a major circulator, and at 89 percent it gets a lot more love in Southern states than in the West/Mountain region (58 percent). Readers in that region are more inclined to borrow thrillers, with seven in ten respondents citing them as big draws.

Not surprisingly, given demographics, Christian fiction is eagerly read at five times the number of rural libraries as urban libraries. It’s harder to explain why the increasingly popular historical fiction still fares so poorly in cities and the South.

Perhaps, though, historical fiction fans in these settings are simply turning to ebooks. While historical fiction ranks seventh among fiction genres in print, it leaps to fifth place in ebook format, with nearly ten percent more respondents citing it among their hottest genres. Likewise, while 73 percent of respondents point to romance as a big print circulator, 80 percent tout it in ebook format, and more than double the number of respondents tout sf/fantasy in ebook format than in print.

It’s long been acknowledged that romance and sf circulate better in ­ebook format. But it does surprise that while mystery claims the top fiction spot in both formats, mystery ebooks get the vote as a big circulator from 12 percent fewer respondents. As a result of these shifts, fiction readership is somewhat more evenly distributed in ebook format than in print (see “Top Fiction Circulators,” p. 31).


Volatile nonfiction

If anything, nonfiction proves to be more volatile than fiction. Cooking remains the top nonfiction print circulator, as it has for nearly ten years, having unceremoniously shoved medicine/health from its longtime perch. Medicine/health has fallen dramatically over the years to fifth place, getting ten percent fewer nods from this year’s respondents than it did last year.

Biography/memoir maintains last year’s second-place standing, having surged like wildfire since 2007, when only 25 percent of respondents cited it as a top circulator. Now that figure is 75 percent, surpassing last year’s count by seven points. Self-help/psychology is another big winner, getting 18 percent of the vote in 2007 and 52 percent this year, and in the same time span history has more than doubled in popularity to 49 percent. By contrast, political science has shifted up and down over a contentious decade, dropping only a point this year to 25 percent but falling more than 15 points since 2010.

As with some fiction genres, readers may not have turned away from political science but simply found themselves better served by the ­ebook format (see “Top Nonfiction Circulators,” this page). While it takes ninth place among top print nonfiction circulators, political science rises to fourth place among ebook circulators, cited by 37 percent of respondents as a top contender. Biography/memoir and history do even better in ebook format than in print. But cooking plunges by 53 points to sixth place in ebook format, and arts/crafts/collectibles and travel don’t even make the top ten. Given how far the ebook format has penetrated the publishing world, trends in ebook circulation reflect real choices by readers and not simply the availability of certain titles.

Surging downloadables, wavering physical audios, tumbling print, ebook assertiveness, and ever-changing reading tastes—librarians find themselves in a landscape that’s hardly placid. Attentiveness to readers’ needs is more crucial than ever. For the more things seem the same, the more they’re ­always changing.

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