Materials Shift | Materials Survey 2014

IN U.S. PUBLIC libraries nationwide, the materials budget rose 2% on average in 2013. While print book spending has fallen 7% in a decade, last year it steadied at 59% of the materials budget—the same figure reported in 2012. Book budgets actually rose 1.5% overall after a three-year lag, and circulation grew 2% on average. Finally, ebook integration into the library world is just about complete, with nine in ten libraries now loaning ebooks and a range of systems in place for measuring their circulation.

These conclusions are drawn from LJ’s 2014 materials survey, which collects budget and circulation data on the wide array of holdings available in public libraries today. The survey represents every size library in every region of the country, including both library systems and independent institutions. The numbers are then weighted to mirror the public library universe by population served. The survey, which for five years has charted the growing presence of ebooks in public libraries, now goes further, reporting on ebook budgets and circulation by category, with instructive results. But first, some basics of budget and circulation overall.


Budget breakdown

We’ve come far since 1998, when LJ launched a materials survey that focused overwhelmingly on print books. Last year’s materials budgets, averaging $783,000 and ranging from $22,000 for libraries serving populations under 10,000 to $6.3 million for those serving population of one million or more, are split among more than a half dozen categories (see “Materials Budget Breakdown,” at left). Print books average 59% of the budget, followed by DVDs/Blu-rays at 12% and audiobooks (including downloadable audio titles) at 8%. The new downloadable movies category averages a scant 0.6% of the materials budget but rises closer to 2% for libraries serving populations of 250,000-plus and can be expected to grow.

Since 2009, print book budgets have inevitably fallen in favor of ­ebook dollars, with ebooks escalating from 1% to 7% of the materials budget overall and averaging closer to 10% at the biggest libraries. A third of libraries serving populations under 10,000 are ebook holdouts, but otherwise over 90% of respondents—and all respondents from libraries serving populations of 250,000 or more—report lending ebooks. Not surprisingly, ­ebook budgets are blossoming like flowers in spring rain, up 20% overall; libraries serving populations of 100,000–249,999 boast ebook budget bump-ups averaging an eye-popping 46.5%.

Print book budgets did show some resilience last year, increasing by 1.5% overall and averaging $465,000, though the biggest libraries lay claim to budgets averaging $3.2 million. Still, only 26% of respondents saw print book budgets grow, and 23% saw them shrink, with libraries serving populations 250,000–499,999 hit hardest (-2.3%) and urban and Midwest libraries registering small losses overall. With ebook budgets growing and movies, audiobooks, and music together nearly doubling their slice of the materials pie in ten years to a sturdy 24%, print book budgets are indeed getting roughed up. Word obsessives can take comfort in the idea that print books, ebooks, and audiobooks, treated jointly as alternate formats, win the materials race with 74% of the ­budget.

Circ’s up

Good news on circulation: every size library posted gains, with a 2% increase overall. Libraries serving populations of 250,000–499,999 boasted a juicy 6.5% increase. At 63%, print books still take the lion’s share of circulation, followed by DVDs/Blu-rays at 21%, audiobooks at 7%, ebooks at 4%, and music CDs/downloadables at 3%. Interestingly, audiobook circulation, once a driving force, barely budged this year and actually fell at urban and suburban libraries. Music CDs/downloadables tumbled over 5% overall after falling over 3% the year before; the category doesn’t look to be a player any time soon.

For now, DVDs/Blu-rays truly pay their way, returning in circulation nearly double what they take in funding. And their circulation keeps booming, averaging a nearly 6% jump last year despite competition from commercial lenders. Still, some libraries are feeling the pinch. “Our DVD circulation, more than half our overall circulation, has dropped considerably,” groans Jackie Davis, Anderson Public Library, IN. “Redbox and especially Netflix are eating our lunch!”

By location, rural libraries claimed the highest book circulation and suburban libraries the lowest book circulation and highest DVD circulation; by size, libraries serving populations over 500,000 have the lowest book and audio­book circulation and the highest ebook circulation. Ebook circulation has increased 1% a year since 2011, when this survey began measuring it, but no patterns emerge by location or size. Instead, ebook success seems very much a result of library and community dynamics, as suggested by conversations with respondents about circulation statistics overall.

Ebook impact

Respondents at libraries where circulation fell offer familiar reasons, including closed branches, shorter hours, and fewer materials owing to budget cuts. But several point directly to ­ebooks. Not only are ebooks affordable for consumers to purchase, especially as the economy picks up, but they’re easier to access commercially than through public libraries and faster, too; impatient readers are willing to go on Amazon rather than tarry on line at the library or wait for holds on popular titles. What’s more, say respondents, ebook use at libraries is more focused that print use, with less browsing and less impulse borrowing, and it can take real marketing muscle—not to mention “more staff expertise and flexibility,” says Celeste Stewart, Alameda County Library, CA—to bring even the strongest ebook collections to patrons’ attention.

Yet at libraries where circulation has risen, ebooks are given much of the credit. Pamela Bruner, Palm Beach County Library System, FL, for instance, points to “continued development of the downloadable ebook/e-audiobook collection and adding an ebook vendor” as reasons for her library’s circulation success. Nancy Messenger, Sno-Isle Libraries, WA, responds to the question about her library’s circulation boost with an enthusiastic “ebooks, ­ebooks, ebooks!” and then explains how librarians made that happen.


“In early 2013, we redesigned our website ( and put e-content front and center,” she says. “Of course, a lot of our patrons were already using our OverDrive service, but adding 3M Cloud Library and putting both right up front made a difference.” That Messenger’s patrons are a tech-savvy bunch—“we’re in high tech’s backyard, just north of Seattle”—also suggests the difference community can make. Do your patrons have the latest devices? Are they wealthy enough to buy their own ebooks? These factors could determine whether the entire ebook phenomenon pushes your circulation up or down.

Print book or ebook, the materials survey reveals some intriguing information about what subjects circulate best in public libraries today. Fiction continues to boom, with print fiction currently averaging 66% of circulation and growing at a rate of 1% annually since 2011, when this survey started tracking it separately. At the smallest libraries, fiction claims 75% of circulation. Fiction is even bigger in the ebook realm, making up fully 80% of ebook circulation, as it did in 2012.

Among fiction’s various genres, mystery remains king, though its grip slipped somewhat in 2013, when 95% of respondents reported it as one of their top five fiction circulators; in 2012, its share was 99%. General fiction comes in second at 87% and romance third at 71%, though it also slipped somewhat (it pulls off 80 percent in the ebook format but is still third). The big surprises: the ever-racing thriller slowed down by a full 10%, with only 42% of respondents seeing it as a top fiction contender, and literary fiction beat out sf/fantasy by 15% to 10%. In the ebook realm, though, their roles are reversed, with sf/fantasy getting a vote of confidence from 20% of respondents; evidently, this genre’s readers like ebook technology.

Looking at fiction circulation by location raises some interesting questions. In terms of demographics, it makes sense that Christian fiction is much bigger in rural than in suburban and especially urban libraries and that Westerns have traction only in the countryside. And perhaps the rugged realities of country life explain why sf/fantasy does not appeal there. Still, why are thrillers much less popular in suburbia than in urban or rural settings, and why is mystery also hotter in those areas than in suburbia? Why do sophisticated urbanites read less literary fiction than their suburban brethren, and why is romance hottest in cities (which can get lonely)? Does YA circulate best in urban libraries because youth are concentrated there, or are more urban adults inclined to crossover reading?

Nonfiction differences

Except for the literary/sf switch, fiction book and ebook circulation are markedly similar. Not so with nonfiction. In print, cooking again takes the gold, as it has since it shoved medicine/health off the podium in 2011. In fact, with 84% of respondents claiming it among the top five circulators, cooking has the highest rating of any other nonfiction category measured in the last decade. But it ranks a mere sixth in the ebook realm, where biography/memoir comes out on top. Biography/memoir placed third in the print sweepstakes, reaching its highest standing ever.

The once hot how-to/home arts slipped sharply last year, falling nearly 20 points to fifth place; both current events/politics and business/finance/careers have fallen nearly 20 points since 2010, with current events just scraping by with a tenth-place showing in 2013 and business falling out of the top ten altogether. But while how-to barely made the ebook top ten, current events and business rank fifth and seventh, respectively, among top nonfiction ebook circulators, perhaps because the immediacy of the information they provide is well suited to the ebook format.

But perhaps not; history, ranked sixth among nonfiction print books in circulation, jumps to second place in ebook circulation, while health/medicine—how immediate is that?—slips from a print second place to an ebook third. Interestingly, though the survey counts fitness and weight-loss books with health, spinning them off shows that their circulation has soared nearly 30% in the last eight years, while traditional health/medicine titles have fallen nearly 20 points in that time. For true medical immediacy, people are evidently turning to sites like WebMD.


Despite the difference in nonfiction book and ­ebook circulation, looking at nonfiction by location reveals some interesting trends. How-to and arts and crafts are most popular in rural areas, where they likely have real application, but it’s perhaps surprising that cookbooks are by far the most popular in urban areas. More understandably, urban areas, home to so many anxious and competitive parents and their offspring, best support the college guide/test preparation category. This category just entered the top ten print nonfiction rankings in 2013, though it doesn’t show up in ebook format, where it’s not really applicable. Finally, medicine/health titles do best in suburbia. What does that say about suburban anxieties?

Tracking ebook circ

As ebook circulation explodes, so do ways of measuring it. Some libraries retrieve circulation statistics from their vendors, others from their consortia, still others from their downloadable ­materials website. When libraries circulate the whole reading device, usually only the loan of the device and not its individual titles are counted, but the staff of Fayetteville Free Library, NY, bravely survey patrons to see what they have accessed. In some cases, librarians must ­estimate. Says Nancy Simerl, Sherburne Public Library, NY. “We can count specific use of the leased or purchased materials, but we also access Project Gutenberg, which we guess at.”

The means of reporting ebook circ statistics are as diverse as the means of collecting them. Many libraries do combine ebook circulation with book circulation to get one big number, but others still report them separately. Still others report ebook circulation with media like audiobooks. At Sno-Isle, it gets complicated. Says Messenger, “We report 3M circ in a separate line but as part of our circulation; OverDrive data reports as download activity.”

However it is measured, ebook circulation is virtually certain to go up in the foreseeable future. That will inevitably bring further shifts in the materials budget. Will ebooks pull funding from books and/or audiobooks? Will DVD/Blu-ray circulation and expenditures be slowed by the Netflix roadblock or by debuting library streaming services? Will nonfiction steal some thunder from fiction? Tune in to next year’s survey to find out.

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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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.


  1. Karl Helicher says:

    Excellent article, Barbara! My department heads and I are using it as a guide to refine our materials budget so we know exactly how much we are spending on E-Books and downloadables. We have been lax and have been lumping them together with print books.

  2. Daniel Winocour says:

    Recently I downloaded a nonfiction ebook, entitled, Empires of the Word. This book is about linguistics and cross-cultural interaction. The ebook is missing all the maps and charts that are in the print version. Some of the fonts are tiny and cannot be enlarged. Asterisked passages stopped being linked to the footnotes partly through the text. The index states that it applies to the print version only. I bought this book and now am reading the print version. My guess is that this is not the only example of a very badly digitized ebook. If nonfiction ebooks are to succeed, the publishers must make them as good or better than the print versions.

  3. Roberta says:

    Does “other E products” mean databases and other e-resources? We consider them part of our materials budget and spend about 20% of the total on that content (we serve 56,000 people). I also assumed that “other” meant periodicals, since they weren’t listed elsewhere.