Book Buying Survey 2012: Book Circ Takes A Hit

Tight money and the rise of ebooks deflate the numbers

With the economy still in the gutter, it’s hardly surprising that LJ‘s 2012 Book Buying Survey of public libraries nationwide turned up a book budget decrease of more than two percent on average. Nor is it surprising that, as budgets are cut, some respondents have adapted their purchasing policies, particularly in the high-circ area of fiction. And with ebooks taking off, one might expect the materials budget breakdown to shift somewhat in their direction.

But it is a shock to discover that book circulation, having soared over the last decade, has suddenly gone flat.

Since 2002, book circulation has been this survey’s success story. Over the years, close to half or more of LJ‘s respondents have reported increases of two, three, or four percent, with 2009 crowning the upsurge: fully 75 percent of respondents reported a circulation boom, with an overall increase of more than seven percent. Last year’s survey, covering 2010, saw a drop-off, with 40 percent of respondents entertaining increases for an overall 2.2 percent rise‚ still reasonably robust.

This year, however, only about one-third of respondents saw their circulation bounce upward‚ and for a meager 0.1 percent net gain at that. Smaller libraries did better, averaging a one or two percent increase, but libraries serving every population range over 100,000 averaged decreases, and libraries serving populations 500,000 or more saw circulation tumble on average a disappointing 2.1 percent.

Some slowdown in reported circulation was to be expected and not just because all good things must come to an end. This year, for the first time, the book buying survey was combined with LJ‘s budget survey to reach a larger pool of respondents (388), which had the inevitable effect of smoothing out big bumps in either direction. But as the survey suggests, there’s more to 2011’s circulation drop than that. Much of it has to do with tight money and the rise of the ebook.

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Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.