Our reading habits are evolving with technology. Want proof? DC’s public library system’s book collection is a lot smaller than it used to be, but it’s got far more e-books and audio and visual resources.


Photo by Let Ideas Compete on Flickr.

“Curling up to a book” means something a little different than it used to. It could mean an actual physical book, but it can also mean scrolling down your smartphone or listening to a book being read through headphones. With a limited collections budget, how has the DC Public Library balanced traditional physical books with newer mediums?

This graph gives us a snapshot of how the numbers of books, e-books, and audio and visual resources have changed since 2006:


Graphs by the author.

The DC Public Library’s collection has hardly been stable over the past eight years, with the number of books dropping sharply between 2009 and 2012. Collections are largely driven by a budget that fell from from $4.27 million in 2009 to $1.67 million in 2012 and then bounced back to $3.85 million in 2013.

Renovations in public libraries across DC also led the library to better catalog its resources and reassess its physical collection and cull books considered outdated or in bad shape.

A constant across the period, however, is the declining proportion of books in the overall library collection. Books went from being 94% of the system’s physical collection to just 81% in 2014. The library system has far more e-books, audio, and video materials than it used to.

While books still dominate the library’s collection, audio and video have been on a swift rise. Audio resources, like e-audiobooks and CDs, have grown over 50%; video, like DVDs and streaming, has doubled.

While DC Public Library’s initial uptake of e-books was slow, its collection has increased tenfold since 2011. Books are the only medium which have been on the decline, falling 16%, in large part due to the removal of outdated or worn books during library renovations. This isn’t to say the DCPL has stopped acquiring books, as you can see at @booksfordc, which tweets whenever new books come into the DC Public Library catalog.

DC residents seem to be fans of the library’s changes, with circulation and library visits both doubling since 2006.

There was a decline in library visits from 2009 to 2013, and this makes sense given the decline of books and rise of e-resources. But new strategies and renovated neighborhood libraries means the decline is likely not permanent.

According to DCPL Executive Director Richard Reyes-Gavilan, the decline in books has the side benefit of freeing up space for programs, like yoga, Memory Lab (a place where library members can digitize home movies and photos), and tech and financial literacy training. Indeed, library programs increased 75%. In other words, there are more and more options bringing people into libraries beyond just books.

The data I used for this post is available through the Institute of Library and Museum Services (IMLS) Public Libraries Survey. DCPL considers data from prior to 2006 to be unreliable. Also, the data I used excludes resources available through third-party providers, like Freegal, which likely means the proportion of books is even lower. You can find complete code for this on my Github page.

Kate Rabinowitz is the creator of datalensdc.com, a website dedicated to visualizing the District through data. She resides in a Capitol Hill alley home and enjoys data mining, board games, and wandering city streets.