Absent User



The Absent User: Physical Use of Academic Library Collections and
Services Continues to Decline 1995-2006

The Journal of Academic Librarianship
September 2008

(Introduction, Section on Circulation, and Tables. Other sections omitted.)


Use of the physical collections and services of academic libraries continues to plummet, with some exceptions, while use of electronic networked resources skyrockets.  This article frames the extent of this decline with a focus on circulation and reference among ARL University, Medical, and Law Libraries, the Ivy League, other associations,systems, and individual libraries.


Library users are in an uncommonly good situation.  They can access information day and night from anywhere in the world.  The Internet, academic library portals, and full-text electronic resources provide them with a degree of access and utility that was impossible until the last few years of the 20th century.  Because they access many of the library’s resources remotely users may be able to complete their coursework and research without visiting the library.  From their perspective this is undoubtedly a positive benefit.   For those who guide the destiny of libraries the absent user has produced a series of formidable challenges.  Foremost among these may be the continuing decline in the use of the physical collections and services.  These declines make it more difficult to justify additional space, staffing, and other traditional resources.       

In response to graphs demonstrating sharp declines in the median ratio of circulation and reference to full-time students in ARL University Libraries,1  Thomas Lord wrote “The graphs are misleading and almost irrelevant.  We want to know the value created by the physical operation of a library and numbers like ‘reference queries’ and ‘circulation’ don’t tell us that.”2  Until this value is established and receives universal acceptance within higher education, however, the old standard measures of use will have to do.  In fact, the old standards have served generations of librarians and university administrators quite well, being used to justify everything from staffing to materials budgets to the square footage needed in new library buildings.

This article will provide data on library use from the 1990s to 2006 with a focus on circulation and reference.  Data from a variety of different libraries and library systems will be provided.

It is unclear how much deeper the declines in the physical use of library collections and services will go.  It is equally unclear how much further the growth in the use of electronic resources will go.  The information environment, generally, will be considered.  This includes brief mention of reserves, periodical collections, government documents, and newspaper rooms. These issues will be discussed and related to the percentage of the library materials budget consumed by electronic resources. 

The use of library input/output measures in a selective and meaningful manner should assist library and university administrators as they strive to balance print and electronic expenditures, adjust staffing, and assess space needs.



The circulation of books, serials, and other materials has been one of the major measures of library use for decades.  Indeed, circulation and other outputs are viewed as more accurate indicators of a library’s utility than the traditional input measures such as volumes added.3   This has made the decline in circulation of such significance to the library community. 

Annual ARL Statistics and the related Research Library Trends by Martha Kyrillidou and Mark Young have tracked this decline among the ARL University Libraries (Table 1).4  With the appearance of Scott Carlson’s The Deserted Library” in the Chronicle of Higher Education (November 2001) the issue of declining use in the nation’s academic libraries was raised to a public level.5  The outcry was immediate and widespread.  It was also relatively short lived.  There does not appear to have been any research published as a follow up to Carlson’s allegations with the exception of this author’s two articles on the subject.6   This is unfortunate because the issue deserves greater attention no matter how disturbing the implications.

The decline in circulation is not universal and questions can be raised about the accuracy of the data upon which any conclusions are based.  In order to mitigate this problem statistics from individual libraries, systems, associations, and types of libraries have been examined.  In “The Elusive User: Changing Use Patterns 1995 to 2004,” circulation and reference transactions for each of the Ivy League Libraries were cited.7  Columbia, Harvard, and Yale showed circulation increases from 1995 to 2004 ranging from 72 to 74 percent.  Princeton experienced a decline of 46 percent.  Overall circulation in the Ivy League Libraries increased 24 percent during this period.  Between 2004 and 2006 the situation changed (Table 1).  Circulation decreased from 7,757,000 to 6,351,000.  Between 1995 and 2006 the increase in circulation stands at 2 percent.  This matches the ARL Private University category for the same period (Table 1).  ARL Academic Law, Medical, and Public University Libraries experienced declines respectively of 7 percent, 58 percent, and 20 percent (Table 1). 

The National Center for Education Statistics Academic Library Survey showed a 14 percent decline in circulation between 1996 and 2004 (Table 2).  This represents an improvement since 2002. The ACRL Summary Statistics reported a 10 percent increase for circulation between 1999 and 2004.  The 1999 to 2005 increase was 2 percent (Table 3).  The Association of Southeastern Research Libraries ASERL Statistics had a 9 percent decline in circulation between 1999 and 200412 and a 26 percent decline between 1999 and 2006 (Table 4).

At the University of Maryland circulation decreased 24 percent between 1995 and 2005 (Table 5).  In California the situation was more dramatic.  Circulation in the University of California System declined from 8,377,000 in 1991 to 3,326,000 in 2005, or 60 percent.8  Within the California State University System the decline between 1991 and 2006 was 43 percent (Table 6). 
Declines in the circulation of library materials generally may also be considered in relation to other factors.  For example, if a college or university has a dramatic drop-off in the number of its students, a corresponding drop-off in circulation transactions may be deemed reasonable. Among ARL University Libraries the number of FTE students did not drop off but increased by 22 percent between 1995 and 2006 and the number of volumes held increased by 31 percent (Table 7).  Meanwhile, circulation decreased by 15 percent.  Chart 1 relates the number of FTE students to circulation.


                                                             TABLE 1


                                                 Circulation Transactions

                                                   ARL Library Statistics


Year                 Law            Medical           Ivy League      Private Univ.     PublicUniv.

1995             1,482,000      4,849,000          6,244,000          16,737,000        62,419,000

1999             1,327,000      5,085,000          6,006,000          17,194,000        58,927,000  

2004             1,446,000      3,004,000          7,757,000          14,710,000        62,977,000      

2006             1,379,000      2,056,000          6,351,000          17,040,000        50,234,000    


% Change        - 7 %           - 58 %              + 2 %                  + 2 %                 - 20 %


Sources: Data Tables. ARL Law and Medical Library Statistics 1994-95 (Association of Research Libraries: Washington, D.C.). Available: ftp://www.arl.org/stat/law/94-95 (Mar. 3, 2006) and ftp://www.arl.org/stat/med/94-95 (March 3, 2006); ARL Academic Law Library Statistics 1998-99.  Available: http://www.arl.org/bm~doc/law99. pdf (Dec. 20, 2007); ARL Academic Law Library Statistics 2003-04.  Available: http://www.arl.org/ bm~doc/law 04.pdf (Dec. 20, 2007); ARL Academic Law Library Statistics 2005-06.  Available: http://www.arl.org/bm~doc/ law06.pdf (Dec. 20, 2007); ARL Academic Health Sciences Library Statistics 1998-99. Available: http://www.arl.org /bm~doc/med99pdf (Dec. 20, 2007); ARL Academic Health Sciences Library Statistics 2003-04.  Available: http://www.arl.org/bm~ doc/med04.pdf (Dec. 20, 2007);  ARL Academic Health Sciences Library Statistics 2005-06. Available: http://www.arl.org/bm~doc/med06.pdf (Dec. 20, 2007);  Ivy League and Private Academic Library statistics compiled from ARL Statistics for 1995, 1999, and 2004.  Available: http://fisher.lib.virginia.edu/cgi-local/arlbin/ arl.cgi?task=setupreport (Dec. 20, 2007); Ivy League and Private Academic Library statistics compiled from ARL Statistics for 2006.  Available: http://www.arl.org/bm~doc/06 tables.xls (Dec. 20, 2007).



                                                          TABLE 2

                                                    Use Transactions

                                             Academic Library Survey

                                   National Center for Education Statistics


Year                     Circulation                 Reference                Gate Count

1996                    231,500,000                 1,900,000                  16,500,000

1998                    216,100,000                 2,100,000                  16,200,000

2000                    194,000,000                 1,600,000                  16,500,000

2002                    189,248,000                 1,508,000                  16,927,000

2004                    200,204,000                 1,423,000                  19,369,000


% Change              - 14 %                         - 25 %                        + 17 %


Sources: Academic Library Survey: 1996 (Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics, 2000).  Available: http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2000/2000326.pdf (Nov. 3, 2007); Academic Library Survey: 1998.  Available: http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2001 /2001341.pdf (Nov. 3, 2007); Academic Library Survey: 2000.  Available: http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2004/2004317.pdf (Nov. 3, 2007); Academic Library Survey: 2002.  Available: http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2007/2007301s1.pdf (Nov. 3, 2007); Academic Library Survey: 2004.  Available: http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2007/2007301.pdf (Nov. 3, 2007). 



                                                           TABLE 3


                                                       Use Transactions

                                                ACRL Summary Statistics

                                                 All Institutions Reporting


                         Year                    Circulation                      Reference

                         1999                    84,904,000                     24,307,000

                         2004                    93,810,000                     18,554,000

                         2005                    86,872,000                    33,205,000

                         % Change                + 2 %                            + 37 %

Sources:  ACRL Summary Statistics 1999 (Chicago: Association of College & Research Libraries, 2000); ACRL Summary Statistics 2004.  Available: http://www.ala.org/ala/ acrlbucket/ statisticssummaries/2004abcd/B17.pdf (Nov. 4, 2007); ACRL Summary Statistics 2005.  Available: http://www.ala.org/ala/acrlbucket/statisticssummaries/ 2005abcd/B17.pdf (Nov. 4, 2007).



                                                          TABLE 4

                                                      Use Transactions

                             Association of Southeastern Research Libraries


                      Year                            Circulation                  Reference

                      1999                            14,107,000                 3,839,000

                      2001                            13,327,000                 3,716,000

                      2004                            12,899,000                 2,994,000

                      2006                            10,382,000                 2,252,000

                      % Change                        - 26 %                       - 41 %


Sources: ASERL Statistics 1998-99 (Association of Southeastern Research Libraries: Atlanta, GA).  Available: http://aserl.solinet.net/stat/1999 /stats9.html (Nov. 3, 2007); ASERL Statistics 2000-2001. Available: http://aserl.solinet.net/stat/2001/stats9.htm (Nov. 3, 2007); ASERL Statistics 2003-2004.  Available: http://aserl.solinet.net/stat/index2004.html (Nov. 3, 2007): ASERL Statistics 2005-2006. Available: http://aserl.solinet.net/stat/ 2006/ASERL-2006-stats-incomplete.htm (Nov. 3, 2007).



                                                         TABLE 5


                                                 University of Maryland

                                                     Use Transactions

                                                                                                                 % Change
Transactions                        1995             2001             2005                 1995-2005

Circulation                        767,000         591,000        584,000                 - 24 %

In-House Use                 1,357,000         618,000        331,000                 - 76 %

Reference                          441,000         147,000        235,000                 - 47 % 

Turnstile                         2,337,000      1,637,000     2,173,000                -   7 %

E-Use                                NA              2,292,000


house are due to increases in electronic full-text availability.

1998.  When the turnstiles were removed this count was no longer available, thus substantially understating use in 2000-01.


Source: Public Services Counts UM Libraries (College Park, MD: University of Maryland, 2007). Available: http://www.lib.umd.edu/PASD/MIS/statistics/librariesdata/ usage2005.pdf (Nov. 3, 2007).



                                                            TABLE 6


                                   California State University Library Statistics

                                                        Use Transactions

                                                                                                           % Change
                                         1991             2002                2006             1991-2006


Circulation                    6,137,000      3,690,000        3,482,000          - 43 %

Reserves                       1,245,000         755,000        1,331,000          +  7 % *

In-House Use              11,197,000      3,866,000        2,846,000          - 75 %


* Reserve statistics have increased significantly since some libraries in the system began counting electronic use.  For example, at Fresno State reserve use increased from 27,000 in 2002 to 241,000 in 2006 and at Humboldt State use increased from 71,000 in 2002 to 189,000 in 2006.

Sources: CSU Annual Library Statistics 1990-91 (Long Beach, CA: California State University, 1992); CSU Annual Library Statistics 2001-02.  Available: http://www.calstate.edu/LS/LibStatsRpt99-00.pdf (Nov. 7, 2007): CSU Annual Library Statistics 2005-06.  Available: http://www.calstate.edu/LS/LibStatsRpt05-06rev2.pdf (Nov. 7, 2007).   


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