Declining foot traffic not the whole story, Kendall County library officials say

A decrease in annual visitors but an increase in digital traffic is a nationwide library trend. With pandemic restrictions easing, area libraries hope to bounce back from a tough year with new events and programs.

Libraries in Kendall County were recording a decline in foot traffic but increased digital use even before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to data. But library officials say traffic data doesn’t reveal the whole story about the state of local libraries.

The Oswego Public Library District, Plano Community Library District and Yorkville Public Library all saw double digit drops in physical traffic between the 2018 and 2020 fiscal years. Oswego’s traffic fell 24%, Plano’s 41% and Yorkville’s 11.5%. FY2020 figures were impacted slightly by the pandemic, with libraries closed about eight weeks during that time.

Digital traffic, on the other hand, rose consistently for all three libraries at an average of 24%.

Libraries nationwide have experienced this trend, which pandemic capacity restrictions have only exacerbated. Though traffic data since last May is not yet available, one local library director called the last year “a wash.”

“Covid threw a whole wrench in everybody’s numbers,” said Deanna Howard, director of the Plano Community Library District. ”Even though our numbers are trending down a little bit, which is what libraries are doing nationwide, I feel like we still have good usage of our resources and facilities.”

Total annual visitors to the Oswego Public Library District’s libraries in Oswego and Montgomery went from 301,863 in 2018 to 228,486 by 2020, according to annual reports libraries must submit to the state.

Visitors to Plano’s library fell from 77,087 to 45,394 over the same period and 68,400 to 65,289 in Yorkville.

Yet Howard and other area library directors pushed back at analyzing traffic data alone.

“Even though the numbers are important, they don’t always reflect the whole picture of what a library does in a community,” Howard said.

The traffic data is based on door counts, and does not necessarily reflect those who participate in library programs or activities outside of a library.

“Not all of our programs are in the building,” said Sarah Skilton, director of the Oswego Public Library District. The library has rotating collections at senior centers and video binge boxes, examples of library use that reports might not capture.

Growth in program attendance is a mixed bag for area libraries though. While attendance at Oswego’s two libraries grew from 31,000 to 35,000 in the two years before the pandemic, attendance fell by 1,000 people at Plano but rose by 1,000 at Yorkville during that same period.

“We’re making plans to start an increase of getting people into the library,” said Darren Crawford, president of the Yorkville Library Board of Trustees. “Stay tuned to our website. There’ll be things going out.”

Now mostly free from pandemic restrictions, all three libraries are getting back to normal operations with new events and programs underway.

At Plano, pop-up programs, arts and science groups and a pajama story are in the works for the coming months should the pandemic remain under control. The library will also hopes to open up its meeting rooms to outside groups in the near future.

Yorkville’s library will launch its summer reading program and the Friends of the Library Book Sale will take place in September.

Other planned events include raffles and a reading in the park event.

The Oswego Public Library District eliminated late fees earlier this year, which it hopes will boost digital traffic. In addition, more programming for millennials will come soon. Millennials are the library’s biggest age demographic, and its director sees young people as a ticket to more library traffic.

“They physically like to have the books themselves and are part of using and reusing items from a public institution,” Skilton, the library’s director said. “That is something we’re going to focus on in the future.”

Lucas Robinson

Lucas Robinson covers politics, courts, schools and the pandemic in Kendall County and Yorkville for Shaw Media. His work has previously appeared in the Chicago Reader, the Buenos Aires Times, Open Secrets and USAToday. He grew up in Muncie, Indiana.