Public Library Data Sources and Resources, July 2009 (v.12, n.4)


Public library data—librarians gather it and send it to the Board of Library Commissioners. The numbers collected by the Board of Library Commissioners go through many routes before their final products are compiled at the local, state and national levels.

The key to all of this gathering and processing are the underlying definitions. Without clear, consistent definitions the data cannot be compared and statistics run. Libraries would only be able to see their individual activities across time.

Definitions used at the Board of Library Commissioners come from various groups and agencies. The most notable is the Public Library Survey. This survey of the more than 9,000 public library entities in the United States has been in place since 1989. This ‘survey’ is not one survey but actually 50 separate state surveys (plus the District of Columbia). Representatives from all of the state library agencies gather once a year to review the data collected and the definitions used. Currently under the Institute for Museum and Library Services, the Public Library Survey continues to evolve and new products and tools are emerging.

Another important source of definitions is the Data Dictionary - an online standard of the National Information Standards Organization, NISO. This standard, ANSI/NISO Z39.7-2004: Information Services and Use: Metrics & statistics for libraries and information providers, was originally in print form and migrated to online in 2002. On the international level is the International Organization for Standardization, ISO.

Other national projects and organizational surveys, such as the project COUNTER and surveys sponsored by the American Library Association, provide additional sources.

Thus, the definitions and instructions on the ARIS and Financial Report annually completed by librarians are created in cooperation with all 50 states.


The Internet has increased access to public library data. The Board of Library Commissioners’ website has Excel data files dating back to 1999. In addition, the most current print reports are available in pdf format. Beginning with the FY2009 public library data collection, the data and statistics will only be available through the website.

Currently there are several tools on the agency’s website. One is Public Library Services at a Glance. This tool allows you to search for your library or another library and view and print a report of per capita state and population group rankings for various data elements such as operating income, staffing and holdings.

Another is the Public Library Charts. With this tool you select the data year of interest (back to 2002) and focus in on your library for various measures of service and a comparison with state, regional and population group averages or means. An Excel chart is created on-the-fly using your choices. You can even select color options before you print the chart.

At the national level are several tools at the IMLS website. All of the Public Library Data Reports and data are available online. The Compare Public Libraries tool allows you to compare your library with any other library in the country either by selecting a specific library or by using other criteria such as population.

Search for Public Libraries allows you to locate any library in the United States by name or other identifying features.


American Library Association - Articles and studies related to Library Value (Return on Investment):

Bureau of Labor Statistics - Consumer Price Indexes - A catalog of “raw” data available from agencies under the U.S. Federal Executive Branch, including public library data

Data Guru - A compilation of survey response options:

Division of Local Services - "At A Glance" reports are summaries of key socioeconomic, financial and property tax data. Community Comparison Reports are summaries of socioeconomic, financial or property tax data for multiple communities

Federal Reserve Bank of Boston - Indicators including consumer confidence, state tax collection and income

The Library Research Service of Colorado - Additional statistical resources for statistical analysis

Public Library Geographic Database (PLGDB) - Mapping from GeoLib at Florida State University provides the location of America's 16,000 public libraries, population characteristics from the U.S. Census, and library use statistics from IMLS

The Survey System - A sample size calculator

UMASS Donahue Institute - Socioeconomic data including population files, housing files and general profiles and reports

Page last updated on 05/22/2015