August 2015 | Volume XXXIII, Issue 4 »

My Turn: Beyond Circulation

August 1, 2015
Nanette Donohue, Champaign Public Library

The news from libraries sounds dire—circulation statistics are down across the board. Libraries must be losing their relevance if people aren’t checking out our materials! But if you talk to people who work in libraries, they’ll tell you that libraries are as busy as ever. Why the disconnect?

There are a number of factors at play. One is that media circulation, especially DVD circulation, has buoyed public libraries’ circulation statistics for more than a decade. Our patrons have a bounty of entertainment choices that they didn’t have just a few years ago. From subscription-based services like Netflix to free videos available on YouTube to ad-supported music on Spotify to free, downloadable podcasts, instant-gratification entertainment is everywhere. Want to watch something funny? A few clicks, and you’re there, with no need to wait for the item you want (or deal with a scratched or otherwise unplayable DVD).

Another factor is that physical items are becoming less important to our patrons. It’s difficult for me to remember the last time I purchased a physical DVD. I used to buy them frequently, but a combination of factors—less leisure time, increasing access to streaming or downloadable content, and a desire to accumulate less physical stuff—has caused my DVD purchasing to plummet. Likewise, I’m checking fewer DVDs out from the library, and it seems that other patrons are doing the same. Many of us don’t feel the need to own—or borrow—an item as long as we can access it in some way.

Which is why libraries are getting into the streaming content business. There are several subscription- or fee-based products that libraries can offer their patrons, but they often lack the new and exciting content that our patrons want. Some libraries are circulating Roku boxes with Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, and Hulu subscriptions preloaded, allowing patrons to connect the device to their home WiFi to access popular content.  These are good solutions, but they aren’t going to give libraries the circulation numbers that DVDs once did.

Relying on circulation statistics to tell the story of the library’s impact on the community has always been an easy way out. We don’t have to delve too deeply into why people use the library or how people use the library—we have this simple measure of “things going out the door.” But when the model changes, and patrons’ choices expand, this simple measure makes us look like we’re failing, and we’re not.

Those of us who are telling our libraries’ stories to our communities need to rely less on circulation statistics and more on the impact that our libraries have on our users’ lives and on the well-being of our communities. We do make a difference, and that difference is beyond the number of items checked out. Depending solely on circulation statistics as a measure of a library’s success is a narrow and dangerous view. Our role is changing, and we must change as well. To do otherwise is to neglect the important roles that we play for our patrons—roles that go far beyond the materials that we loan.

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