24 September 2020
The Impact of COVID-19 Related Closures on Library E-Content Usage.

When Illinois’s Stay at Home order went into effect on March 21, 2020 and public libraries were required to close their buildings, something happened. At RAILS we started to see a noticeable shift in user behavior on the eRead Illinois Axis 360 e-content platform. The number of holds being placed on items skyrocketed. The type of materials people were checking out shifted from the most popular best-sellers to more modern classics. And usage as a whole was way, way up.

We wondered - is this happening elsewhere? Are other e-content consortia seeing similar changes? And if so, how does it compare to the increase in usage we are seeing with eRead Illinois Axis 360?

To answer these questions, we reached out to several e-content consortia in the RAILS service area. We gathered usage data from seven OverDrive consortia, one cloudLibrary cloudLink group, and the eRead Illinois Axis 360 shared collection. Consortia provided statistics on e-book and audiobook checkouts in February, March, and April of 2019 and 2020 so that comparisons could be made between e-content circulation before and during the lockdown period. Five of the nine consortia provided us with daily statistics by format for a more detailed study. 

Once we collected usage information from each consortia, RAILS’s Data Analysis Manager, Grant Halter standardized, merged, and then analyzed the data to identify noteworthy patterns and trends. Along with looking at total checkouts RAILS-wide, he split the data into e-book and audiobook groups, and considered each consortia separately. Grant also created a series of graphs that provided a visual guide for the changes in user behavior.

What did we learn?

Like the eRead Illinois Axis 360 collection, most e-content consortia saw a dramatic uptick in e-book checkouts starting in mid-March and lasting through April. In many cases, library e-book usage in 2020 doubled over 2019. Audiobook usage also increased, although not as dramatically as e-book usage did. 

It was always our intention to make our findings widely available. So we published them via OpenGov - a cloud-based software that gives public entities the ability to create reporting dashboards and stories. OpenGov gave us an easy way to share our analysis with not only our library colleagues, but with board members, other state agencies, stakeholders, and the general public. We encourage you to share this analysis, too. Feel free to post a link to our OpenGov story on social media.

Based on our analysis, we came to the conclusion that public libraries were able to provide valuable services to their communities even when they were “closed” during Illinois’s Stay at Home order. Or, more accurately, libraries never actually closed during the pandemic. The focus of service just shifted to online spaces. And the services provided in those online spaces are valuable to people across Illinois.

Every library professional knows the value of the services we provide to our communities. But sometimes it feels like an uphill battle communicating those services to the public. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve gotten the “Do people even use libraries anymore now that we have the internet?” question from a new acquaintance when they learn I am a librarian. That’s why I find the information in this analysis so valuable. It is measurable proof that yes, even in extreme times people do still use libraries! And that libraries are so much more than the physical buildings they inhabit - they are gateways to information, windows to a wider world, and pathways to lifelong learning.

Our guest blogger today is Anna Behm. Anna is the E-Content Specialist at RAILS.