Applying Newton’s Third Law to human behavior: institutions have mass

Digital forms and ubiquitous networks are greatly increasing opportunities to circulate authored symbolic works. Digitization projects are creating huge online libraries of digitized books that persons around the world can access at zero incremental cost. Storage prices are dropping so rapidly that one small device will soon be able to store all the music that most persons listen to throughout their lives. Video sharing sites are collecting and distributing large amounts of video across the Internet. Many persons can now easily create a huge library of digital works. How persons respond to vastly expanding access to works will significantly shape the communications industry.

To understand better the circulation of works, consider U.S. public-library users’ book-borrowing behavior since the mid-nineteenth century. Measured relative to the unskilled wage, the dime novels that Irwin Beadle began selling in 1860 were almost five times more expensive than the twenty-five cent paperbacks being sold in 1950. A lower real purchase price for books increased the incentive to purchase rather than borrow. Average time spent reading, according to the best available estimates, fell 50% from 1925 to 1995. Less time spent reading implies less demand for borrowing books.

Other factors probably pushed toward more borrowing. The number of books in print, and the number of books in libraries, increased immensely from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twenty-first century. Perhaps such a change encouraged persons to read a larger number of books less thoroughly, and hence favored borrowing books relative to purchasing books. Library users’ travel costs, in time and money, probably fell with improvements in transportation technology since the mid-nineteenth century. Lower travel costs reduce the total cost of borrowing books from a library.

Library book circulation per user has no strong, long-run trend. From 1856 to 1978, library users borrowed from U.S. public libraries about 15 books per user per year. From 1978 to 2004, book circulation per user declined approximately 50%. The growth of audiovisuals circulation, estimated at 25% of total circulation in 2004, accounts for about half of this decline. These figures depend on estimates and disparate samples of libraries with varying circulation and user accounting methods. Nonetheless, these figures are of sufficient quality to suggest that historically established institutions significantly stabilize borrowing behavior.

circulation trends for U.S. public libraries

Users borrowing items from public libraries has plausible connections to a variety of institutions and values. Much of the pleasure from reading comes from discussing a book with friends who have also read the book. The desire to discuss books among friends may constrain the rate at which individuals will read books. At the same time, persons may value going to the library as an activity in itself. Borrowing library items may be in part a by-product of interest in those visits. On the supply side, libraries can counterbalance changing demand for books by shifting the distribution of book collections between popular and less popular works, by changing investments in promoting book borrowing, and by shifting collections from books to audiovisuals.

Media use that is connected to wider scope of behaviors and interests is likely to change more slowly. The shifts in music from vinyl records, to CDs, and then to digital downloads were format changes that required relatively small changes in behavior. Persons who read the same newspaper every morning while using the bathroom, or who watch a half-hour television news program every evening before dinner, have their media use connected to relatively stable patterns of life. Generational changes in patterns of life, rather than changes in relative prices, quality, or features, are more important for such media use. Established institutions, meaning both routine patterns of personal activity and indefinitely chartered organizations, can give media use considerable stability despite major changes in activity incentives and technological possibilities.

Note: Post edited and updated. For sources and data, see Book Circulation Per U.S. Public Library User Since 1856 (also on SSRN).

3 thoughts on “Applying Newton’s Third Law to human behavior: institutions have mass”

  1. Very interesting research and analysis on library usage and circulation.
    I’d like to see you delve into exactly what happened or went wrong around 1975 to have such an effect on book borrowing.
    Was it the introduction of videotapes (as you detail that half the decrease was attributable to increase in video borrowing?)

    Or, as I believe, was it the relaxation of mental health laws which de-institutionalized so many mental patients with the result that they made the libraries their homes, thus displacing those ‘citizens with administrative rights’ to borrow books.

    By displacement, I mean not that there were no seats left in the library, but that with the influx of homeless or mentally ill, and lack of strictures upon their behavior in the library, the atmosphere of the library changed from welcoming to dangerous, from comfortable to uncomfortable, from a regular routine visit to someplace to be avoided.


  2. Thank you for wading through such messy stats and sharing your results.

    I’m always surprised when librarians don’t report per capita circulation. A rare ARL study summarized per capita circ in academic libraries but only from 1995 till 2008 (see, your going as far back as 1850 is very cool – and useful :-)

    Great blog!

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