Does Investment in Public Libraries Increase Usage?

I recently mentioned that I had been exploring some data on public libraries.  Here’s the reason why.  A recent local new paper article chronicled the role libraries are playing today. They highlight the fact that some local libraries that have undergone major renovations recently. In the article they claim:

The surge in popularity mirrors what other communities have seen. When they invest in libraries, the number of people using them goes up.

The claim seemed to rely on anecdotal evidence, so I determined to examine this using data.


I want preface this by admitting that I am a big fan of libraries.  I have fond memories of summer reading programs in my childhood.  My very first exposure to the Internet happened in a public library.  I used to roller blade to the local public library as a teenager to do my homework (even though I had my own desk at home). When my parents moved and I visited them, one of the local attractions I wanted to see was their public libraries.  I love them.  However I love claims being backed with data more than anecdote, especially when it touches something close to me.


I used data from the annual report for public and association libraries to evaluate the claims.  I looked at the data from 1991-2014.  As always, for those who care to replicate my analysis, you can check out the GitHub repository.

I examined the change in library “usage” in terms of circulation and visits.  I wanted to see if the investment in libraries spurred on increase usage that died out over time so I looked at the difference from a one year before and after investment window up to ten years.

There are just under 500 libraries that had a renovation over the time period.  There were also about 200 libraries in New York State didn’t have major renovations.  I was able to use these libraries as a control group.  If there was a statistically significant difference between these two groups there would be data to back up the news paper article’s claim.


After looking at circulation and visitation over the various time frames there was no difference between the libraries that were renovated and those that were not.  Not over the short term, or long term.  So the bottom-line is that the claim that investment increases library usage is not supported by the data.


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