Library Patronage and Community Services: The Quantifiable and Non-Quantifiable Benefits of Public Libraries

March is National Reading Month, so we’re taking this opportunity to talk about public libraries, measuring library patronage, and the community, recreational, and informational benefits of public libraries in general.

Champaign County is home to 10 library districts: the Champaign Public Library, the Homer Community Library, the Mahomet Public Library District, the Ogden Rose Public Library, the Philo Public Library District, the Rantoul Public Library, the St. Joseph Township-Swearingen Memorial Library, the Sidney Community Library, the Tolono Public Library District, and the Urbana Free Library. For each one, we’ve calculated the library patronage percentage: the percent of residents in the library’s area that have an unexpired library card.

Table: Library Patronage: Public Libraries in Champaign CountyDownload table data for Library Patronage: Public Libraries in Champaign County.

Source: Illinois State Library, Office of the Illinois Secretary of State

You can see that there is a wide range of resident populations among the library districts, but the patronage rates tend to be more consistent. The total range (roughly 20%-50%) is not small, but six of the 10 libraries have patronage rates clustered within a few percentage points of 30%. More analysis on this data can be found on our Library Patronage page – it’s one of the indicators in our Engagement category.

You may notice that there’s only one year of data in the table above, and that’s 2015. This is because CCRPC was not looking at library patronage before the revision of our indicators set in summer 2016 (and you can read more about that process in our April 2016 and July 2016 blog posts). We’re planning to update the Library Patronage page with newly-released 2016 data and additional analysis later this spring.

One item to note is that, for the libraries with outlying patronage rates, there does not seem to be any correlation between the number of residents in the area and the percentage with an unexpired library card. The library with the lowest participation rate, Ogden Rose Public Library (22.0%) also has the smallest number of residents in its area (810). However, the library with the highest participation rate, Homer Community Library (49.9%), has the second-smallest number of area residents (1,193). The Mahomet Public Library District comes in right behind the Homer Community Library with a patronage rate of 48.2%, but has a much larger population (12,623).

This data comes from the Illinois Public Library Annual Report (IPLAR), a resource that is compiled by the Illinois State Library and comprised of self-reported data from libraries throughout the state. Some, but not all, of this data is available online, and the full data set is requestable.

Library patronage data doesn’t give us a complete picture of the role of libraries in our communities. To try to create a fully quantified measure of a library, we would need to account for their other services. The prospect of rolling library patronage together with things like event attendance, sessions on public computers, and resources lent (among others), while accounting for the size of the library, its funding, its staffing, and its other resources, is a daunting one. And even if that were feasible, it would still miss residents that come in to pick up a tax form, ask a question at the information desk, page through a book or a newspaper, or use a library computer as a guest – all services that may not require the resident to be a cardholder. But just because something can’t be accurately quantified does not mean it’s unimportant. (Obviously.) Libraries in Champaign County and elsewhere provide their communities with services that may not be available anywhere else in town. They act as community centers, by holding events and by providing public space for informal gathering. They offer free Internet and computer access that patrons may not have at home. And that’s in addition to their information and lending services, which offer enormous educational, informational, and recreational benefits.

What library patronage data can tell us is something about community engagement as a whole, which is why we use it as one of our Engagement indicators. As we’ve pointed out, libraries act as both formal and informal community centers. We posit that residents that are engaged at and invested in their local library may be more engaged and invested, socially, economically, and politically, in the community as a whole. This is not the result of a long study, but a shorthand assumption: involvement at the library implies involvement in the community.

If you’re part of the percentage of residents with an unexpired library card, celebrate Reading Month and keep enjoying your library! If you’re not, this could be the perfect time of year to go check out a library in your area – you’ll probably find something interesting.

Source: Illinois State Library, Office of the Illinois Secretary of State

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