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Indicator V-7 Public Library Holdings
NOTE TO READERS: Please include the following reference when citing data from this page: "American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Humanities Indicators,".
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CORRECTION (5/24/2013): The data points for 2010 included in the 5/10/2013 update were underestimates. They have since been adjusted.
Updated (5/10/2013) with data for 2006–2010.

See the
Note on Per Capita Library Statistics.

Libraries are a particularly crucial element of the humanities infrastructure. While some scientific knowledge can become quickly outdated, much humanistic knowledge does not, and with their decades’—and in some cases centuries’—worth of holdings of literature, scholarship, and archival materials, public libraries are a primary means through which a humanistic heritage is transmitted from generation to generation.

The federal government has been collecting data on public libraries for over two decades via a national census of such institutions that was first administered by the U.S. Department of Education and then, beginning in 2006, by IMLS. A public library is defined by IMLS as an entity that was established under state enabling laws or regulations to serve a community, district, or region, and that provides at least the following:

      1. an organized collection of printed or other library materials or a combination thereof;
      2. paid staff;
      3. an established schedule according to which services of the staff are available to the public; and
      4. the facilities necessary to support such a collection, staff, and schedule.
To count as a public library, the entity must also be supported in whole or in part with public funds.

As explained on the IMLS website , a library may be a single outlet or a library system comprising a central library, branches, and, in some cases, bookmobiles and book-by-mail operations. In fiscal year 2010, 8,951 public libraries operating in the 50 states and the District of Columbia met the criteria above.1

Public library holdings of print items grew steadily from 1995 to 2005, with over 120 million printed materials (books and serials) added to the nation’s public collections in the course of the decade (Figure V-7a; existing data do not permit the estimation of statistics for humanities materials specifically; all figures provided here describe library materials on all subjects). After 2005 the size of libraries’ print collections contracted somewhat. Increases in subsequent years brought holdings back up near their 2005 level, but 2010 saw a decline of approximately four million items that left the nation’s total print holdings at 812 million.

Figure V-7a, Full Size
Supporting Data Supporting Data

From 1995 to 2010, public libraries’ print holdings kept pace with population growth. Over the course of these 15 years libraries’ per capita print holdings remained in the vicinity of 2.8 items. (Please see the Note on Per Capita Library Statistics for an explanation of how this statistic and others like it in Part V, Section B, were calculated.)

Changes in media and technology have had a notable impact on public library holdings, with audio, visual, and electronic book (ebook) collections having grown dramatically (Figure V-7b). While growth in print holdings has matched population growth, growth in libraries’ holdings of other types of media has far outstripped population growth. The number of each type of nonprint item per 1,000 people increased every year from 1995 to 2010. The increase from 1995 to 2010 in audio items per 1,000 people was 89%. Though substantial, the growth in audio holdings was modest relative to the increase in public libraries’ video holdings, which almost quadrupled in size over the 1995–2010 time period. Although the number of ebooks in the collections of public libraries was much smaller than for the other types of nonprint items, the increase in ebook holdings from 2003 (when data on ebooks in public libraries first became available) to 2010 has been at approximately the same rate as for video items. By 2010, the number of ebooks per 1,000 people had grown four-times larger than in 2003.

Figure V-7b, Full Size
Supporting Data Supporting Data


1 D. W. Swan, J. Grimes, T. Owens, R. D. Vese Jr., K. Miller, J. Arroyo, T. Craig, et al., Public Libraries Survey: Fiscal Year 2010, IMLS-2013-PLS-01 (Washington, DC: Institute of Museum and Library Services, 2013), 7.

Most the trends presented as part of this indicator here are based on data points, published by IMLS and the National Center for Education Statistics, that were calculated for all public libraries surveyed, not only those that met IMLS criteria. In 2010 IMLS began publishing information for only those entities that it considers public libraries. As these 2010 were not comparable to values for earlier years, the Humanities Indicators recalculated the 2010 values for all surveyed libraries. The Humanities Indicators hopes in the near future to be able to present, for the years 1995 and forward, data points based on only those organizations that can be considered public libraries under the IMLS definition.

Note on Per Capita Library Statistics

All of the per capita statistics in this section of the Indicators are based on the total unduplicated population of libraries’ legal service areas. A library’s legal service area is the geographical area that by state or local statute a library is mandated to serve. “Unduplicated” refers to the fact that the population figures have been adjusted to compensate for overlapping service areas. To simply add the populations of all service areas would be to double count those people residing in areas served by more than one library.

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