Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Counting Public Libraries

My own beleaguered public library is clamoring for a 0.7 mill temporary millage rate increase—lest it be forced to close one of three branches and cut hours and staff by 30 percent. This made me curious about public libraries generally. I got data going back to 1989 from IMLS. Never heard of IMLS? Not surprised. Neither had I. The letters stand for the Institute of Museum of Library Services. That sounds like an association but is actually a federal agency created by the Museum and Library Services Act of 1996 (renewed in 2003 and again, with not even a hint of publicity, in 2010). The agency gives grants and publishes data. The U.S. Bureau of the Census collects data for the agency, and I got my numbers laboriously, looking at 21 files in sequence, from them (link). Herewith the data.


Because these data are not—so far as I could discover—tabulated in one place, I have reproduced the actual counts at the base of the bars; to see these, click on the image; to return, press Esc. Not shown, but each entity has additional stationary facilities (thus not counting bookmobiles) averaging to 1.8 per library counted. In FY 2009, for example, the 9,225 libraries had 16,698 stationary facilities. I could not discover any explanation for the unusual drop in libraries between FY1991 and FY1992—beyond hazarding the guess that the 1990-1991 recession had an unusually severe impact. But other recessionary periods have left no similar trace. IMLS reports do not discuss year-to-year trends.

The IMLS data deserve to be published in more accessible formats; they are very detailed and rich in information, but using them is a little like eating a slice of bread richly smeared with jelly after it has managed to fall face-down on the beach-sand.

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