The recent story by the Boston Globe about weeding books out of the branches of the Boston Public Library has caused a stir among the Branch Friends groups and other patrons concerned about losing books in the branches. The BPL has offered a rebuttal in an post to its Compass Blog.
Part of the controversy is the idea planted by the article that libraries, especially neighborhood libraries, are no longer focused on books, as illustrated by this summary:
Officials at the central library say the whittling of collections is intended to update the system’s database of more than 23 million items and further establish branches as a communal space where people go to make use of computers, study rooms, and general meeting spaces.
This idea has been a common theme over the years in library systems across the country, especially as technologies like “Overdrive” (an electronic system for checking out e-materials used by the BPL) have captured market share in public library systems and philosophies about the use of public space have changed.
With all of this debate, I wondered what the circulation statistics show in terms of whether books are holding their own in the electronic age, especially in the branch libraries, which was the focus of the Globe article. I offer the following not in support of any one position about deselection (aka deaccension; aka weeding), rather in support of sharing information with Friends about how the library is (or is not) changing. The information presented is freely available on the BPL website, I have just collected the data in one place and placed it in a (decidedly low-tech) graph/spreadsheet embedded at the end of the post.
I took the BPL’s usage statistics for book circulation from Q1 2011 through Q4 2014 and looked at the percentage of circulation attributable to the branches, the Central Library, and Overdrive. What you can see is that despite heavy use of Central and Overdrive, and the closing of Washington Village (with patrons directed to South Boston) and Orient Heights (with patrons directed to the new East Boston branch), the branches are still responsible for 56% of circulation. This “market share” has been extremely consistent since 2011 with an average of 58% and a standard deviation of just 1%. Circulation over the last year has been nearly identical each quarter:
Central and Overdrive show a much greater change in their usage. Central is responsible for 13% less circulation now than it was in 2011. It is true that portions of Central have been affected by recent renovations, but the trend starts well before renovations began – only 3% of the decline occurred within the last year. In contrast, Overdrive now accounts for 16% more circulation than it did in 2011. At that time, library officials commented that Overdrive matched the circulation of the best branches and now it matches the circulation of Central – it accounted for just 14,000 fewer items than Central last quarter:
Astute observers will note that circulation did in fact decrease around the time that renovations started, however, circulation the previous quarter was 221,621 and the graph shows an ongoing decline – more striking is the almost 100K item difference between what was checked out in Q1 2011 and Q4 2014:
The rise of Overdrive and decline of Central is related, as there is a strong, significant correlation between circulation at the two (for what it’s worth: r=-.86). There is no such relationship between Overdrive and circulation at the branches (r=.07).
So there you go, make of it what you will. There are more than enough opinions to go around!