Closer Look Studies

U.S. Public Libraries and the Use of Web Technologies, 2010

It’s well known that technology is changing at an increasingly rapid pace and that many public libraries throughout the United States are attempting to adopt new technologies to better reach their patrons. In trade journals, blogs, and at library conferences, professionals in the field have continually discussed the best methods for using web technologies to enhance the success of the public library. In keeping with this discussion, in late 2007 the Library Research Service (LRS) designed the first iteration of the U.S. Public Libraries and the Use of Web Technologies study. In the midst of a conversation largely focused on best practices, this study was envisioned from its inception as a longitudinal study with several goals. Primarily, it attempts to record the landscape of web technology adoption by public libraries in the United States. While most of the discourse thus far has focused on what should and should not be done to better use technologies, there has not yet been much research examining how and how many libraries actually are adopting various web technologies. This study attempts to put that in perspective. Another intention of this study is to examine the characteristics of the libraries that are adopting technology in an attempt to tease out the factors that lead them to try out various tools. We are also interested in determining whether or not the adoption of specific types of technology leads to “success” as traditionally defined in public libraries. This report represents the second iteration, and refinement, of the study. It captures a changing landscape of web technology adoption by public libraries and looks further into the characteristics and successes of libraries that adopt technology.

The first iteration of this study found relatively low adoption levels of more interactive web technologies, despite the popularity of “Web 2.0” themes in the national literature and conference dialog. Depending on the type of technology, the increase in adoption rate for public libraries ranged from very little, if any, to incredible leaps and bounds. The area that was most embraced during the two years between studies was social networking, especially among the largest libraries. Most notably, the social networking site Facebook moved from a relative non-factor to near ubiquity in large libraries: for libraries serving communities of at least 500,000 people, the ratio of those with a Facebook presence jumped from barely one in ten in 2008 (11%) to 4 out of 5 (80%) in 2010. Similar, though less drastic increases were found in libraries serving other population groups, and the estimated percentage of all public libraries in the United States to have a Facebook presence rose nine-fold, from only 2 percent in 2008 to 18 percent in 2010. Libraries’ use of other social networking sites, such as the photo-sharing site Flickr, saw large increases also well. During this study, researchers also looked for the presence of a web site directed at mobile users. Very few public libraries were targeting mobile users online at the time of the study, but outreach to mobile technologies seems like an area potentially poised for an explosion similar to that of use of social networking sites. Whereas a few years ago social media was a topic of heavy discussion at conferences and in library literature, the current topic du jour tends to be mobile devices. Most notable is a series of virtual conferences, such as Handheld Librarian, dedicated specifically to mobile devices.

More traditional public library web technologies, such as web presence and online account access, seem to have plateaued. Nearly all libraries that serve over 25,000 people already had some of these basic services by 2008, so there was not much room for growth. Based on our research, the smallest libraries did not see much increase in basic online services, either. In fact, a lower percentage of libraries serving fewer than 10,000 people had a web presence at all during this iteration of the survey, as compared with 2008 (73% vs. 71%). Some of the standard but slightly more interactive web technologies, such as email reference and blogs, tell a similar story to that of basic web services in that they showed little, if any, growth among most population groups. One of the few exceptions was in social media, which saw exponential increases across the board; other than that, it was primarily the largest libraries (those serving more than 500,000) that demonstrated substantial increases in their adoption rates. In fact, greater technology adoption among the largest libraries in the country was a general theme in comparing the overall public library web technology landscape between 2008 and 2010. Instead of a flattening of the percentages of libraries adopting certain technologies across the board, it seems that the gap between big and small libraries is growing in terms of the technology offered on their websites.

Just as in the first version of the study, libraries that were in the top twenty percent of their population group based on the number of technologies adopted were labeled “Early Adopters.” The most recent public library statistical data available (2008) from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), indicates that libraries we identified as Early Adopters again fared much better on traditional statistical measures than their peers, both in terms of inputs and outputs. Early Adopters were better funded and better staffed than other libraries and also saw greater outputs in visits, circulation, and programming. The major inference from this analysis is that public libraries that have been successful in the past, when measured by traditional means, have also chosen to put resources into the adoption of new web technologies.

Revisiting the observational data from the first iteration of the study, researchers found that libraries identified as Early Adopters in 2008 saw significantly greater increases in visits and circulation between 2003 and 2008 than their peers who had not been as active in the adoption of these technologies. Regression analysis suggests that, even when controlling for staff and collection expenditures, adoption of web technologies is a predictor of these increases.

The Impact of the Recession on Public Library Use in Colorado

Coloradans are continuing to experience tough economic times as they recover from the latest recession. In the absence of consumer confidence and aggressive investment in the private sector, spending and associated tax revenues are also down. This, in turn, is putting extraordinary pressure on the public sector at state and local levels. City councils, county commissions, special district boards, and the General Assembly are tightening their fiscal belts to historically low levels.

In this context, it is not surprising that Colorado public libraries are suffering financially. Between 2007 and 2009, 25 of the state‟s 114 public libraries (22%) experienced reductions in total revenue and another 19 (17%) saw no or negligible (i.e., less than 5%) revenue increases. That means that 44 public libraries in Colorado—39 percent, or two out of five—are in some degree of financial distress. If the additional pressure of population growth is taken into account, the situation is even worse. Thirty-two libraries (28%) saw their per capita local revenues drop between 2007 and 2009, and another 17 (15%) experienced little or no increase in funding—meaning that a total of 49 libraries (43%) are under fiscal pressures.

Fortunately, a few of the state‟s public libraries had previously-funded building campaigns come to fruition, leading to the opening of several new state-of-the-art central libraries and library branches. Other libraries set new service priorities for their own limited resources, and still others renewed efforts to let their users know just how much they can do to help.
As the recession reached Colorado and deepened, a popular library bumper sticker slogan was proven to be true:

Libraries will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no libraries.

As Coloradans lost their jobs and homes, or grew fearful of losing them, many found that an old friend could serve them well: the public library. The library is a place where those who are casualties of a bad economy can turn for much-needed information, community, and help. This report shares the statistical trends for public library use before and since the onset of the latest recession. It also includes the voices of librarians from around the state, offering their observations and stories of how public libraries are helping in these difficult times.

Two conclusions are clear: Public libraries are more needed than ever, and they are stepping up as part of the social safety net that helps people protect the financial security of their families and build new futures when they must. For some, a new future means finding a job, sometimes in a new community; for others it means going back to school to re-tool for a new career; and for still others it means becoming entrepreneurial and creating their own jobs and jobs for others. People in all of these circumstances are finding the help they need at public libraries.

School Librarians Continue to Help Students Achieve Standards: The Third Colorado Study (2010)

Known links between stronger school library programs and better Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP) scores are confirmed by a recent examination of 2007-08 data on school libraries and 2008 data on students scoring proficient or advanced on CSAP reading. In addition, stronger library programs were also associated with reduced percentages of students receiving unsatisfactory CSAP scores, thereby helping to close the achievement gap.

U.S. Public Libraries and the Use of Web Technologies

The use of interactive web technologies on public library web sites in the United States has been a topic of much discussion in recent years, and a shift in certain types of user services is underway. Terms like “Web 2.0” and even “Library 2.0” have become common in library literature and at conferences as those on the early edges of this shift share their successes and failures with the broader library community. The Library Research Service (LRS) was interested in adding to this conversation and, in late 2007, designed the study U.S. Public Libraries and the Use of Web Technologies. In spring 2008, LRS staff visited the web sites of nearly 600 public libraries in the United States, searching for the existence of certain web technologies, including technologies defined as “Web 2.0.” The web sites that were examined were drawn from a stratified sample of public libraries in the United States, with approximately equal numbers of libraries included from each of five different population ranges. Additionally, staff visited the web sites of all public libraries in Colorado. Two main sets of results were derived from the study: 1) how many public libraries in the United States (and Colorado) were implementing certain technologies on their web sites, and 2) what were the characteristics of the libraries that could be identified as “early adopters” of web technologies. A third set of conclusions – does the early adoption of such technologies increase the libraries success in traditional service areas – awaits the release of more current, available national public library data.

For the most part, public libraries in the United States have been relatively slow to adopt the more interactive Web 2.0 technologies. In fact, as a whole, public libraries have been rather slow in adopting even the most basic web technologies. Just over four in five (82%) public libraries in the country had a web presence, and just over half (56%) offered online account access to their patrons. Not many were reaching out to their patrons by utilizing some of the newer technologies available. Less than a third of public libraries in the United States offered any of the following that LRS staff could locate: a blog, e-mail reference, or chat reference. Hardly any had moved onto popular social networking sites that were often mentioned in library conferences and literature. As might be expected, the smallest libraries in the nation were those that were least likely to have any of these web technologies – not even three-fourths (73%) of libraries serving fewer than 10,000 had a web presence found by LRS staff, and fewer than half of them offered access to their online catalogs. Very few provided any web technology whatsoever beyond the most basic. Larger libraries, while much more likely to have adopted the technologies, were still far from universal in their adoption of anything beyond the most basic.

Libraries that were in the top twenty percent of their population group in terms of number of technologies adopted were labeled “early adopters” for the purposes of this study. Based on 2005 national data, which was the most recent data available at the time of the study, these early adopting libraries were more successful, by traditional measures, than their peers. Libraries that were early adopters were much better funded and staffed than other libraries, and in fact surpassed their peers by large margins on nearly every statistical measure. These libraries had more visits, circulation, reference transactions, and programming use, as well as more audio and visual materials. The one notable statistic where early adopting libraries did not outpace other public libraries was in the number of books held. Since the national data was from 2005—before most of this technology was implemented—it can be suggested that successful public libraries in the United States had decided to put their resources into more advanced web
technologies. Determining whether these ventures onto the web were successful should be the focus of follow up studies.

At this writing, a follow-up study is being designed. In spring 2010, LRS staff will again take the pulse of U.S. public libraries in relation to web technologies. For more about these studies, please visit

Public Libraries – A Wise Investment: A Return on Investment Study of Colorado Libraries

In spring 2006, a need was identified in Colorado to describe the variety of benefits delivered by public libraries to their patrons and to quantify the return on investment to taxpayers for monies invested in public libraries. To provide this data, the Library Research Service (LRS) undertook What’s It Worth to You? A Return on Investment Study of Selected Colorado Public Libraries in May 2006. Using a multiple case study approach, this research was designed to create such information for eight public libraries, representing geographically, economically, and demographically diverse regions of Colorado. Libraries studied include Cortez Public Library, Denver Public Library, Douglas County Libraries, Eagle Valley Library District, Fort Morgan Public
Library, Mesa County Public Library District, Montrose Library District, and Rangeview Library District.

Data were gathered using a combination of questionnaires, key informant interviews, and available data sources. Almost 5,000 Colorado residents responded to the survey questionnaire; in addition, library staff and community members were interviewed as key informants about their libraries’ services and their economic value. Available data about library staff expenditures—including salaries, wages, and benefits—and library spending with vendors and contractors were obtained from the participating libraries.

For most of the libraries participating in the study, the return on investment (ROI) was approximately five to one—that is, for every $1.00 spent on public libraries, $5.00 of value was realized by taxpayers. Two outliers among the participating libraries—Cortez and Fort Morgan— demonstrated higher ratios, due to the pronounced discrepancy between who funds these libraries (i.e., municipal governments) and who uses them (i.e., county residents). While nonresident use is a factor for all public libraries, in these cases, it had an extreme impact on the study results.

An analysis of the many ROI studies conducted nationwide reveals that the differences in their resulting ROI ratios are readily understood by considering what returns and which investments are included as well as which services are addressed and which “market value” multipliers are used.

An analysis of patterns in various types of library use reported by respondents for participating libraries also revealed notable variations. Generally, it appears that the setting of a library—whether it is located in a metropolitan or non-metropolitan area and whether it is a central city or a suburb—is strongly associated with these patterns (e.g., higher circulation rates for non-print formats, such as audio books and DVDs, greater use of library computers to access Web resources). Notably, the reported incidence of in-library use of materials varied little among the participating libraries.

To find out more about this Colorado ROI study and read this report and reports for the eight participating public libraries, go to: and see Public Libraries – A Wise Investment.

Early Literacy Programs and Practices at Colorado Public Libraries

In efforts to help young children aged birth through six prepare to read, public libraries across the nation are stepping to the fore with new or enhanced early literacy programs and services. Early literacy – as used in this report – defines what children know about
reading and writing before they can actually read and write. Many such programs, often aimed at both children and adults, endeavor to help children build pre-reading and prewriting skills while helping adults learn methods for engaging children in such activities.
These activities can also serve to enhance the position of libraries as centers of learning for pre-school age children and their families.

In Colorado, the Colorado State Library (CSL) ardently promotes and supports early literacy services in public and school libraries through widespread training sessions, informational workshops, grant dissemination, and engagement in coalitions and strategic
partnerships. As an additional means of furthering such endeavors, this report provides information for the library community and all other interested parties about a broad range of early literacy programs and services currently underway in Colorado’s public libraries. It describes the history, implementation, and implications of these activities as well as offering programmatic tips and best practices information.

How Academic Libraries Help Faculty Teach and Students Learn: The 2005 Colorado Academic Library Impact Study

From March to May 2005, a study concerning academic library usage and outcomes was conducted by the Library Research Service in association with the Colorado Academic Library Consortium. The primary objectives of the study were to gain a greater understanding of how academic libraries help students learn, and to assess how libraries assist instructors in their teaching and research activities. Nine Colorado institutions administered two online questionnaires—one to undergraduate students and another to faculty members who teach undergraduate courses. Overall, 3,222 individuals responded to the student survey, while 395 instructors answered the faculty survey.

Retirement, Retention, and Recruitment: The Future of Librarianship in Colorado

There is much discussion in the library community—nationwide and in Colorado—about a large wave of “baby boomer” retirements that has already begun, and that will be changing the face of librarianship—literally—over the next five to ten years. During the last quarter of 2003, 1,241 Colorado librarians and other library workers responded to a voluntary statewide survey asking them about retirement, retention, and recruitment issues. Respondents to the survey came from every type of library and every corner of the state. A statewide public relations campaign accompanied the administration of the online survey, which branched to questions on one of the “R” issues after respondents identified themselves sufficiently. Because the survey dealt with a variety of issues related
to the status of librarianship, the returns are not limited to those planning for imminent retirements. Respondents include library and information science (LIS) students, library paraprofessionals, and librarians—both those who plan to retire within the next five years and those who do not. While the size of the special library workforce is unknown, it is probable that this sector is under-represented, while workers in public libraries are certainly somewhat over-represented relative to academic and school libraries.

Colorado’s @your library Advocacy Campaign Evaluation

The Colorado Advocacy Project, Colorado’s @your library Campaign, is a statewide advocacy campaign sponsored by the Colorado Association of Libraries. It contains elements of public relations, marketing, and community relations to build visibility and support for libraries and has been active from 2002 through October 2004 with three components:

  • The Initiative (Coach/Player) Project;
  • Public Relations/Marketing Training;
  • Statewide Promotion Project.

The Coach/Player Project was designed on an initiative-mentor model and matched mentor libraries with trainee libraries for year-long training and support in some type of advocacy or marketing effort. The project had 13 participating coaches and 11 participating players. 100% of both coaches and players completed their marketing projects. That phase of the campaign was completed in 2003 and has been evaluated in a final report by Bonnie McCune. A second year of teams is now in process.

This report evaluates the second two components of the overall project that are in process and scheduled for completion in October 2004 (funded by a LSTA 2003-2004 grant). In the second year the two campaign components have emphasized academic and school libraries with:

  • Targeted positioning and promotion for academic and school libraries (leveraged support for marketing through collaborations, outreach, and material), while continuing on-going general promotion launched during the first year.
  • Targeted public relations/marketing training (hands-on training and tool kits, targeted to academic and school libraries), while continuing to offer general training launched during the first year.

Intellectual Freedom Issues in Colorado Libraries: Concerns, Challenges, Resources, and Opinions

This project was conceived by the Colorado Association of Libraries’ (CAL) Intellectual Freedom Committee (IFC) to shed light on intellectual freedom issues in Colorado libraries. Of particular interest to the IFC were ‘challenges to’ versus ‘concerns about’ materials and the Internet in libraries. There was anecdotal evidence that there were far more concerns being raised by patrons about materials and the Internet than there were formal challenges. That is, a significant number of patrons were expressing concerns about materials and the Internet at their libraries, but they were not proceeding with formal challenges. In examining the issue of challenges versus concerns, this study examines the findings by type of library, community, and library personnel. In addition, this study investigates libraries’ challenge policies and strategies, usage rates of CAL-IFC and American Library
Association (ALA) Intellectual Freedom resources, the perceived influence of intellectual freedom issues in libraries, and the opinions of library personnel about these issues. All data was gathered using an online questionnaire.


  • Public Library Statistics & Profiles
    Dive into annual statistics from the Colorado Public Library Annual Report using our interactive tool, results tailored to trustees, and state totals and averages.
  • School Library Impact Studies
    School libraries have a profound impact on student achievement. Explore studies about this topic by LRS and other researchers in our comprehensive guide.
  • Fast Fact Reports
    Looking for a quick rundown of library research? Check out our Fast Facts, which highlight research and statistics about various library topics.


View All


LRS is part of the Colorado State Library, a unit of the Colorado Department of Education. We design and conduct library research for library and education professionals, public officials, and the media to inform practices and assessment needs.

This project is made possible by a grant from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).

Staff & Contact Info