ST 34/10: How many libraries?


The IFLA World Report on libraries is an excellent initiative.

The Report is obviously work in progress. There are many issues about data and documentation that we have to address. But the series provides a great opportunity to develop shared data, methods, concepts and understanding of libraries from an evidence-based perspective.

It offers a focus that makes extended, learning-oriented professional debate possible.

The number of libraries

When we study global statistics, the first thing we want to know about a country is the number of libraries. That is easier said than done. The two main problems are:

  • The branch problem: are we counting the number of library organizations – each headed by a director – or the number of distinct library branches?
  • The size problem: are we counting organizations above a certain size – or do we include anything (fifty books on a shelf?) that somebody chooses to call a library?

Let me give a couple of examples:

The branch problem

United States

The IFLA World Report for 2010 says:

According to the American Library Association’s Library Fact Sheet, there are an estimated 16 549 public libraries in the United States.

It adds:

The 2007 Report indicated 9 207 public libraries, but perhaps this was calculated on different grounds.

The comment is correct: the United States provides both the number of public library systems – about nine thousand units – and the number of library branches (including main/central libraries) – about sixteen thousand. The 2007 report used the former (9.207) and the 2010 report the latter (16.549).


The report states:

Estimated number of public libraries in the country: 807 + 34 mobile libraries.

This refers to library branches or outlets – the number of library systems is about 430 – one for each municipality.

The report comments:

Since the 2007 Report, the number of public libraries in Norway has increased to 841, with 807 public libraries and 34 mobile libraries (according to the Norwegian Archive, Library and Museum Authority). It is assumed that these mobile libraries fulfill the functions of public libraries.

The mobile libraries do fulfil the function of public libraries. Their organizational status differ from case to case, however. Some are mobile branches of a particular municipal library system, while others are organized at the county level, supplementing (but never replacing) the nationwide municipal network of public libraries.

There has been no increase from IFLA’s 2007 report (Norwegian data from ???) to the 2010 report (data from 2007), however.

The official numbers are:

  • 2005: 433 library systems // 832 branches (including main libraries) // 33 mobile libraries
    • printed report from the Norwegian Archive, Library and Museum Authority published in 2006
  • 2007: 430 systems // 807 branches // 34 mobile libraries
    • report published in 2008
  • 2008: 430 systems // 799 branches // 33 mobile libraries
    • report published in 2009

The size problem

Public libraries come in all sizes. If we decide to include even the smallest ones in our data collection, we are forced to spend a lot of effort to gather statistics from tiny “libraries” that have no paid staff and no building or even a separate room of their own.

It seems very democratic to include everybody. But such a decision defines a work task. The people who make the democratic decision are not the people that have to do the actual work – of collecting and processing data.

Some tiny libraries do outstanding work. These should definitely be supported and held up as cases to be admired and imitated. But most do not – that’s why they remain tiny, understaffed, underfunded and forgotten. Their problem will not be solved by gathering statistics of low quality.

We face a conflict of values. The more time we have to spend chasing data from small units, the less time we have to process, understand and present data. and argue our case in general.

So I argue for concentrating our efforts on units above a minimum size – to avoid chasing lots of organizations that lack full-time, professional salaried staff. The cut-off procedure may differ a bit from country to country, however.

Germany has about two thousand public libraries with salaried staff, mostly funded by the government – and six thousand libraries with volunteer staff, mostly associated with German churches.  The former group represents nearly ninety percent of the total library output (number of loans and visits). By dropping the thousands of small  libraries run by volunteers, we lose about ten percent of the data. But we save at least three quarters of the time consuming data collection-and-processing effort.  The effort saved can be used to develop our understanding and actual presentation of the modern sector – the ninety percent that remains.

In the United States I don’t have staff data, but the LJ Index provides budget data. Here we might exclude eleven hundred library systems with total budgets – for staff, media and infrastructure – below USD 50.000 per year.

In Norway, there is no need of a cut-off for public libraries, since all municipalities are well covered by existing statistics. But when it comes to research libraries, we might for instance drop the ones with less than “half a person” (FTE) on their staff. In 2008, that would exclude twelve of the main libraries listed in the official statistics.

The smallest of these belonged to the State Archive in Kristansand. This library was basically a collection of 35 thousand documents to be consulted in-house. The total annual budget was five thousand euros and the staff consisted of one twentieth of a person person (!).




6 Responses to “ST 34/10: How many libraries?”

  1. Tord Höivik Says:

    The Report says:

    Estimated number of public libraries in the country: 2, 090

    Source for the number: Swedish Arts Council (Statens kulturråd)

    Sweden has an estimated 2 090 public libraries, including 290 main libraries and 1 001 branch libraries. The estimation is based on figures provided by the National Arts Council. (In 2007, an estimated 1 348 public libraries were reported.)


    Clearly, definitions must have changed …

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  6. hidey Says:

    What in the world

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