Humanities Indicators
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Public Library Holdings
(Updated November 2016)

Libraries are a significant component of the humanities infrastructure. While some scientific knowledge can become quickly outdated, much humanistic knowledge does not, and with their holdings of decades’—and in some cases centuries’—worth of literature, scholarship, and archival materials, public libraries are a primary means through which a humanistic heritage is transmitted from generation to generation. Unfortunately, existing data do not permit an examination of humanities materials specifically, so the figures provided here describe library materials on all subjects.

Findings and Trends

  • After increasing almost every year from 1995 to 2008, public library holdings of print items fell from 816.1 million items to 767.9 million items in 2014, a 5.9% decline from the 2008 high (Indicator V-7a). From 1996 to 2005, public libraries’ print holdings kept pace with population growth, as libraries’ per capita print holdings remained slightly above 2.8 items per person. Per capita holdings fell in every subsequent year, reaching 2.5 items per person by 2014.
  • Changes in media and technology have had a notable impact on public library holdings, as audio, visual, and electronic book (ebook) collections have grown dramatically, far outstripping population growth (Indicator V-7b).
  • The number of nonprint item remains small relative to print holdings, but the number per 1,000 people increased nearly every year from 1995 to 2014. The number of video items increased at a relatively steady rate over this period, for total growth of approximately 400%. Audio materials saw a surge in growth beginning in 2011. All told, the number of audio items per 1,000 people increased 285% from 1995 to 2014.
  • As recently as 2011, the number of ebooks in the collections of public libraries was smaller than the numbers of other types of nonprint items. In two years’ time, however, the number of ebooks held by the nation’s public libraries came to far exceed their holdings of video or audio. In 2014, public libraries held 696.5 ebooks per 1,000 people, an increase of more than 4300% over the 2003 level (the first year for which data on this type of material are available).
V-7a: Public Library Holdings of Print Materials, Fiscal Years 1995–2014*

* Print materials include print books and serial backfiles. Values presented are for the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. Calculations were performed on all surveyed libraries, not just those meeting Institute of Museum and Library Sciences criteria for public libraries.

Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Public Libraries Survey (1995–2005); Institute for Museum and Library Services, Public Libraries in the United States Survey (2006–2014).

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V-7b: Nonprint Public Library Holdings per 1,000 people, by Type, Fiscal Years 1995–2014*

* Values presented are for the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. Except in the case of electronic books, calculations were performed on all surveyed libraries, not just those meeting Institute of Museum and Library Sciences criteria for public libraries. Nonprint holdings include both physical holdings and downloadables.

Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Public Libraries Survey (1995–2005); Institute for Museum and Library Services, Public Libraries in the United States Survey (2006–2014).

About this DataRelated Indicators
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