America's Star Libraries: What's Next

The newest output measure in the PLS is library website visits. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic closed many library buildings to the public, websites were a major access point for many library users.

Coming Soon: Library Website Visits

The newest output measure in the PLS is library website visits. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic closed many library buildings to the public, websites were a major access point for many library users. According to a 2013 Pew Research survey report, “What People Do at Libraries and Library Websites,” a quarter of Americans reported visiting a library website in the past 12 months. Once there, activities they reported include: searching the catalog (82 percent); getting basic information like hours of operation, location of branches, or directions (72 percent); reserving books (62 percent); renewing books (51 percent); using online databases (5 percent); getting information about programs or events (48 percent); getting research or homework help (44 percent); reading book reviews (30 percent); signing up for programs (27 percent); downloading e-books (22 percent); and reserving meeting rooms (6 percent).

While precise data on the historical development of U.S. public library websites is surprisingly elusive, a cursory sampling on the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine suggests that most major urban libraries had websites by the mid- to late 1990s, while most smaller libraries had them by the early to mid-2000s. Conservatively, then, we can assume that most public libraries have had a website for at least 20 years. Yet the FY18 PLS is the first to ask public libraries across the U.S. to report the number of times those websites are visited.



Here is a summary of website visit reporting for public libraries that received a 2020 LJ Index score. Across all libraries scored for FY18, three out of five (60.6 percent) reported this newest output measure.

States in which all scored libraries reported library website visits for the latest data year are Arkansas, Maryland, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, and Virginia. In addition, the Hawaii State Library System, the nation’s lone statewide public library jurisdiction, and the District of Columbia Public Library, essentially a single municipal library jurisdiction, also reported website visits.

States in which a majority of scored libraries reported FY 2018 library website visits are New York (98.3 percent), Florida (97.3 percent), Missouri (97.0 percent), Louisiana (96.7 percent), North Dakota (95.3 percent), Kentucky (94.8 percent), Mississippi (94.0 percent), Indiana (93.8 percent), Michigan (92.7 percent), California (92.0 percent), Colorado (94.5 percent), Vermont (88.0 percent), North Carolina (87.7 percent), Wisconsin (86.2 percent), Washington (85.7 percent), Georgia (83.3 percent), Alabama (80.0 percent), Connecticut (76.9 percent), Oregon (76.3 percent), Nevada (75.0 percent), West Virginia (75.0 percent), Utah (70.0 percent), New Mexico (61.1 percent), Minnesota (54.2 percent), and New Hampshire (51.7 percent).

States in which a majority of scored libraries did not report library website visits in the latest PLS dataset are South Dakota (69.7 percent), Tennessee (67.3 percent), South Carolina (61.0 percent), Alaska (58.1 percent), Delaware (57.1 percent), and Montana (54.4 percent).

For FY18, 12 states had no scored libraries reporting library website visits—likely indicating that this item had not yet been added to their state surveys: Arizona, Iowa, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Massachusetts, Maine, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Wyoming.



It will be at least one and probably two more years before library website visits can be added to the LJ Index. If it must wait for 2022, it will be an especially valuable addition that year. The 2022 edition will be based on FY20 data. For the vast majority of states, that will include all or much of calendar year 2020, during which the coronavirus pandemic shut down in-person service for months at most of the nation’s public libraries, and continued to reduce service offerings and capacity even as some reopened. Doubtless, that will be a very different year of data, and one in which the usual patterns and trends related to these statistics will be altered dramatically. Whenever it comes, the addition of library website visits will mean that the index has equal numbers of statistics relating to in-person and electronic services, reflecting the evolving role of the public library in the community.





Like all websites, popularity could depend on basic capacity factors such as site speed and performance.


The behind-the-scenes information a website feeds to search engines and crawlers is another major factor affecting the amount of traffic received.


One of the first things that wins over or puts off a first-time visitor to any website is its ease of navigation. This is especially important for public libraries, as they must integrate such a wide variety of functions: basic library information and contact links, program calendars, catalog and database access, and online reservations, holds, and renewals.


More and more library users are accessing public library websites from mobile devices. Like any other website, a library’s must work just as effectively in that environment as on a large screen. Given the navigation issues specific to libraries, having a mobile-friendly site is even more important.


Libraries are in the information business. If they want lots of users to flock to their websites, they must offer high-quality content that is presented as elegantly and accessibly as possible. No matter how easy a library’s website is to use, users won’t become frequent visitors if they don’t find information they need.


Having intuitive internal links in a library website is a key navigation issue. In addition, a library website’s popularity may depend on the links between it and other websites—both links to external sites made by the library and, hopefully, links that other sites provide to the library.


Nothing discourages website traffic faster than a user finding outdated information on a library web page. The only thing worse is a 404 error—trying to get to a page that has gone missing.


Perhaps the single most powerful driver of traffic to any website is social network posts that link to the site. Simply making information and services available on a library’s website does not guarantee that library users will know it is there. That depends on creating the kind of social media chatter that drives traffic toward
the library’s site.


A library website’s traffic will also depend on the quality and quantity of the user’s exper ience, particularly on their first visit. The longer a user visits, the more engaged in the site they become, the likelier it is they will return. And often, what determines the length ofa website visit is the user’s perception of the quality of the site’s structure, navigation, and content.


A library, like any other “retail” operation, must provide good customer service. At critical points on a library’s website there need to be obvious, easy, fast ways for users to get the extra help they may need. FAQs—frequently asked questions—may deal with a lot of routine matters, but ultimately users also need ways to reach staff in real time.

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