Just How Many Libraries Have Closed? Ask LISNews


Following up on comments on a recent story, I'd like to ask the LISNews community: Are there any credible published reports of the number of US library closures in the past year/two years/five years, etc? Also welcome are findings for other countries.

  • Do you--does anyone--have any actual data on actual library system closings? Not branches, not temporary shutdowns, but public libraries that actually disappear--or, let's say, shut down for at least three years?

    Has it been 1% over the last 10 years? 0.5%? 0.1%?

    Have there been more public libraries (again, not branches--those are inherently more temporary) closed or opened over the last decade?

  • Please contribute your findings and attribution in a comment below, thanks.


    Buffalo & Erie County Public Library closed a dozen or so branches 5 or 6 years ago.
    Detroit Public Library is closing a bunch of branches.
    That system in Texas is closing, or closed.
    What's the story in Chicago & Seattle? They are talking about closing branches?
    UK libraries are in bad shape, I think they've closed a few, a few are being run by volunteers.
    I'm pretty sure I just read a story about a place closing a branch in a mall someplace in the midwest.

    As someone who scans maybe 100 stories about libraries a day I'd say the general trend is 90% terrible for budgets as reported in local news papers. I don't know that there is a huge wave of closings though. It wouldn't surprise me if there was one coming though. (Note: Huge Wave could mean numbers closer to 20, not 2,000)

    There it is, Blake: With one exception, you're talking about branches. Branches come, branches go. Not that this isn't a bad thing, but not the question I'm asking--although that might also be an interesting question.

    Also, just for clarity: I'm talking about the US. The UK is a very different and apparently drastically worse situation.

    Why is a branch not a library? It's a big building full of computers, books and librarians isn't it?

    If you go to the IMLS (Institute of Museum and Library Services) web site http://www.imls.gov , you can download spreadsheets with library data. In addition to everything else, this has information on what each state considers a public library. In the last couple years, geo-coding was done for all library locations.

    This is the same data which both Library Journal and Tom Hennen use for their rankings of libraries. You should be able to parse the data to get a real number (both branches and systems).

    They do keep the id numbers for years, so that when places re-open they will have complete data.

    The trouble with IMLS stats is that they're *not* spreadsheets. They're either Access files or they're flat files, and not comma-delimited or tab-delimited flat files.

    Thus, "you should be able to parse" is a non-starter without the appropriate software or programming environment. As an independent researcher with, at the moment, no grant funding or other revenue sources, this doesn't work. I've tried: I've looked at the flat file and can see no plausible way for me to parse it. (My next book, on library use of social networks, includes 38 states rather than 50 partly because only 38 state libraries have actual downloadable spreadsheets of their portions of IMLS data.)

    And, frankly, if it's that easy to parse the files and see how many actual libraries (not branches) are closed, I'm surprised that I haven't already received firm answers to my questions. This is not the same as how many libraries there *are.* I know that number...

    I've also said that, if I did have funding for the ongoing 100% survey of social network use I'd like to do, the first thing I'd do is buy Access... and then see whether this question was readily answerable.

    If you don't want to purchase Access, you can open the data in OpenOffice Base. OpenOffice ( openoffice.org ) is free open source software and can handle many of the tasks that Microsoft products do, with none of the expense.

    here are the instructions on how to open them in Base:


    While it hadn't worked (as far as I could tell) last summer, when I tried it again last week, I was able to open the IMLS Access database using Excel. (I'd also tried Base last summer--I have LibreOffice on my computer--and it didn't *seem* to work at the time. Maybe I was doing something wrong.)

    I like the way you describe OpenOffice: "can handle many of the tasks that Microsoft products do." I think that's exactly right. Personally, I'll take LibreOffice because it avoids the Oracle connection, but that's just me.

    Maybe it is worth quoting one item from the executive summary in the 2009 IMLS publication on public library survey results:

    "The number of public libraries has increased over the past 10 years."

    This doesn't answer my question--how many libraries (not branches) have permanently closed?--but it does suggest that, overall, the number is a negative one: More libraries have opened than have closed.

    More comments on my blog.

    I posted the comment.

    Walt is right. I guess I always have opened what I needed in Excel (mostly because I don't have the needed Access skills). I have also privately apologized to Walt.

    And, after Michael sent me email, I tried--again--opening the IMLS database in Excel. Difference is, this time it worked.

    Mysteriouser and mysteriouser...

    The other question remains: Is there any clear way to determine from this (or quite a few past years) database--actually three linked MDB files--what libraries have closed and remained closed? A topic for later investigation.

    From Rich

    There's the Losing Libraries website in partnership with Library Journal though it appears not being kept updated. The site's Twitter account has current info:


    I was unable to find anything on that site that actually offers a list of closed libraries. On the other hand, the site is so LJ-ish (and not in a good way) that I may have given up in frustration.

    How many were closing down anyway, like over the years we were in boom?

    Theoretically, yes. In my longer discussion of this issue (on my blog), I try to distinguish between libraries closed because the towns they're in have become ghost towns and those closed for other reasons--but first you need to know which ones have actually closed and not reopened a year or two later.

    There just don't seem to be a lot of the latter--again, excluding branches, which close and open for both "budgetary crisis" and legitimate demographic reasons. In any case, I'm satisfied that the overall number is negative, based on IMLS figures: That there are more public libraries (or locations, this isn't clear) in 2009 (most recent figures) than there were in 1999...either 0.9% or 1.6% more.

    You'd need to take size into consideration too. Always bad to close any libraries but which is more important? Closing one big library in a major metropolitan area or closing the only one the middle of nowhere? One big one or twenty small ones. Simple numbers don't really answer that (mind you not fair to expect it to from simple figures) Maybe it should be something like changes to 'number of people without a library within x miles'?

    Those might all be interesting discussions--but since I so far can't get an answer to the simple question (how many libraries have closed, period), that seems like a starting point.

    And as for which is more important: Given the funding systems of public libraries, it's not usually a choice. Libraries are mostly locally funded and mostly under local control in the U.S.--and, given the situation in the UK, I believe that's a good thing.

    Libraries in the UK are totally locally controlled as well. It's just that the money the local councils have to spend has gone down and they go for the easy target. It's not a national policy which seems to be what some people think. Unless you consider the government saying you can't put up council tax ( as people don't want to pay more), you have to make cuts instead. But then cuts don't HAVE to be against the Libraries.

    At least in the US it seems, especially in the case of smaller towns I've seen mentioned on here, that you can vote in a law to take a % of the local housing taxes etc to go specifically towards libraries. We'd love that sort of thing. Even the ability to do it and fail.

    Problem is though that everyone has expectations, but if you get increase their taxes to pay for something they want suddenly they aren't so keen, as they have less money as well.
    In my city you have thousands of people signing a petition to keep a library, well if all those people gave £3 each that would pay for the running of that Library for the next year. It's not an insurmountable problem but when you ask if people want street lighting or library services or food/care for the elderly they tend not to choose the Library as more important.

    Somehow I doubt that I'm the right person to lead an international movement to get more funding for public libraries. There's CILIP, ALA, and dozens of state, regional and local associations--and there are probably thousands of Friends groups.

    I'm trying to get an answer to one fairly narrow question.

    I've done my share of "here's a narrow question, what's the broader picture"--e.g., I've now looked at 5,958 U.S. public libraries to gauge involvement in social networks. But this was (is) one little question. "Don't stop there" would be right if I was the only one writing or thinking about public libraries.

    In the U.S., at least, most bond and tax override issues for public library funding succeed. Going around asking each household to cough up $5 on their own probably wouldn't. I can't speak to the picture in the UK. (The point here isn't that US libraries are mostly locally controlled so much as it is that they're mostly locally funded--not by money handed down from the state or Federal government.)

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