Library Stat of the Week #14: Four out of five loans at the median national library are in electronic format

In the last two library stats of the week, we have looked at the relationship between digital and physical loans from public and academic libraries.

Based on countries for which data is available, it is clear that there is a big difference in use of eBooks and other electronic formats. In public libraries, loans of electronic books and documents represents less than 14% of all loans, while in academic libraries, the figure is more than 94%.

What about national libraries?

Often the biggest library in the country, they hold very significant collections, thanks both to legal deposit (where this is in place) and proactive collection policies. As such, they are a critical resource for researchers, educators, and all others simply with an interest in culture and history. Some are even explicitly combined with public or university library functions.

The resources they hold can be subject to particular rules, especially legal deposit copies of works. In some countries, for example, it may be possible to send physical copies of works but not digital ones. In others, there is digital access, but only in specific places.

Clearly, at a time of COVID-19, where digital tools provide the only means of accessing content, there is a need for laws and practices that allow this. In general, of course, more digital access to national library collections contributes to their mission to facilitate research, education and access to culture, without people having to travel.

So what was the situation before the crisis? IFLA’s Library Map of the World offers insights into this, with almost forty countries sharing data on how many books, eBooks, documents and downloads they offer.

Overall, it is clear that many national libraries have already seized the possibilities that digital is offering. Across countries for which data is available, the median share of digital loans and downloads in total loans was just under 80% – this was the case in Malaysia.

This means that almost four times as many books and documents were being shared electronically than physically. In 13 of the 38 countries, national libraries were sharing over ten times as many works in digital form than in physical. Nonetheless, in fifteen the share of digital books and documents in the total was less than 50%.

To some extent, as set out above, differences between national libraries may be down to the rules they face and the nature of their collections. What is certain is that in current circumstances, there is a real value in finding ways to facilitate access to the works that they hold.


Find out more on the Library Map of the World, where you can download key library data in order to carry out your own analysis! See our other Library Stats of the Week! We are happy to share the data that supported this analysis on request.

2 thoughts on “Library Stat of the Week #14: Four out of five loans at the median national library are in electronic format

  1. Federico Leva

    Depressing: the two national central libraries of Italy report 37k loans per year, vs. over 30k for the national library of Finland, which serves a much smaller population with about half of the staff. If you visit both, it’s not hard to see why. The Finnish national library has a large part of the collection in open shelves, so I do a lot of browsing without checking out anything, and I think many others do: so the numbers are probably even underestimated for purposes of comparison with BNCF and BNCR.

    1. library-policy Post author

      Dear Federico, Thanks for your message. One possibility also is that the National Library of Finland is also a University Library of course. You’re right though that ‘loan’ figures will not account for on-site consultations!

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