Education

Americans Still Love Their Libraries

Most Americans enjoy their public libraries and use them frequently, according to a new report by the Pew Research Center.
by | March 18, 2014
Children use computers at a library in Washington, D.C. David Kidd/Governing

More than two-thirds of Americans like their public libraries and use them often, according to a new report by the Pew Research Center. The Pew analysis suggests that new forms of information technology are enhancing people's experience of libraries, rather than substituting for them. Even among Americans who don’t use libraries, many maintain positive views of them anyway.

“We’ve touched the vast percentage of our communities and have drawn strong support,” said Jamie LaRue, former director of the Douglas County library system in Colorado and a proponent of having libraries publish e-books. LaRue said he hoped the Pew report would signal to government officials across the country that libraries continue to play a critical role at certain stages in people's lives. For instance, more than half of library users say libraries are important for helping them find and apply for jobs.

While libraries remain popular, funding for them declined by 3.8 percent around the country between 2008 and 2011, according to the Institute for Museum and Library Services. As revenues shrank during the recession, local governments responded by cutting hours, reducing staff and even closing branches, said Barbara Stripling, president of the American Library Association. A survey last year by the institute found that most of the funding cuts to libraries between 2001 and 2010 have come from state and federal government, with reductions of 19.3 percent and 37.6 percent, respectively. (More recent national data on library funding are not yet available.)

“All of our librarians are trying to figure out how to tell the story of libraries, so it resonates with legislators and decision makers,” Stripling said.

The March report categorizes nine distinct groups based on their relationships with libraries, from the tech-savvy “Information Omnivores” to the disengaged non-library users labeled “Off the Grid.” About 30 percent of Americans fall in high-engagement categories and about 39 percent fall in medium-engagement categories. The analysis is part of a larger review by the Pew Research Center of survey data collected between July and September of last year. Past reports have shown that some 81 percent of Americans 16 and older have used a library or bookmobile at some point in their lives and about 54 percent have used a public library in some way in the past 12 months.

Governing discussed the most recent report's findings with its lead author, Kathryn Zickuhr. The following transcript has been edited for clarity.

What motivated you and the Pew Research Center to look at American usage of public libraries?

We’ve been studying public libraries for the past two or three years now. We received a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to study the role of public libraries in Americans’ lives and their communities. Libraries are particularly interesting institutions to study because they are so heavily identified with printed books even though people use them in a variety of ways.

When you’re looking at the impact of the internet, for instance, a lot of newspapers, libraries, the music industry, government, higher education -- all sorts of institutions have really been impacted by the internet. Looking at libraries is one way that we can explore what it means to look for information in this digital environment.

Was the rise of the e-book a motivating factor for doing the study?

We did start by looking at the reading landscape of America, and particularly the rise of e-books and how e-books fit into people’s library habits. Most libraries now offer e-books for checkout, but most Americans aren’t aware of that and the proportion of library users who have checked out an e-book in the past year is pretty small. It is growing though. Just while we've been studying this, it grew from about 3 percent to 5 percent of recent library users who have borrowed an e-book in the past year.

I know a lot of people who think about libraries and who think about books are interested in the rise of e-reading. That’s certainly an important issue because our research has found that people who read e-books tend to be avid readers in general. It seems that they like to read and e-books just give them a way to fit more reading into their days. We’ve found that currently due to the fact that Americans’ reading habits are still very print-based and also not many Americans are aware of whether or not their local library even offers e-books, most Americans are still interacting with print books when they interact with their libraries.

This particular study creates a set of categories for library users. Were there surprises for you based on other research you’ve been doing in the last few years?

The lower engagement groups are sometimes really interesting for how different they are from one another. For instance, there is a low-engagement group that we call the "Young and Restless." They represent about 7 percent of the U.S. population. They tend to be younger than the general population. They are also characterized by the second half of their name: restless. They are often more recent residents of their communities and they generally don’t know where the nearest library is located. That’s something you don’t see even in the lower, non-engagement groups. In those groups, most people -- even if they don’t use the library or have never used the library in their lives -- know at least where it is. But this specific group seems to be characterized by the fact that even though they have used a library at some point in their lives, they just aren’t using libraries right now and don’t seem to aware of where the nearest library is if they wanted to start using one. So, libraries don’t seem to be on their radar as much. What's interesting though is that they still have pretty positive views on libraries overall. When you compare them to another low-engagement group, the "Not For Me" group, they're much more likely to think that libraries are important for promoting literacy in their communities or improving their communities' quality of life.

On the other hand, you do have this group we call "Not For Me." They only represent about 4 percent of the U.S. population. They actually have very negative perceptions of libraries and are much less likely to think that libraries are important to them or even to their communities. They’re more likely to think that people don’t need libraries as much as they used to. Only about half of them think that their libraries closing would have any impact on their communities. They’re more likely to be male, older and they also tend to have somewhat lower levels of education, with about 18 percent having graduated from college.

I was confused by one of your findings from this report, which seemed to contradict what I learned from your December report on how Americans view their public libraries: If you come from a low-income household you are more likely to place high value on your libraries. Yet here you’re saying they’re actually less likely to be engaged. How do you reconcile those two findings?

In general, people who come from higher income households with higher levels of education are more likely to use libraries in general. However, among people who use libraries or who say a family member uses libraries, people from lower income households are much more likely to say that library services are very important to them and their families, compared with those in higher-income households.

I would have assumed that web-savvy information seekers would not use libraries as much or value libraries as much, but some of your findings contradict those assumptions. Can you talk about people who are comfortable using technology and to what extent they are using libraries and value libraries?

We often see this narrative that people are turning away from their libraries and don’t need them as much because of the internet and new technologies that allow people to access information directly and more quickly in many ways. And if you talk to librarians and if you talk to library staff members, they’ll often tell you that the types of things that people come to them for help are changing. For instance, just looking at reference desk queries, people aren’t coming into their local libraries as much to ask basic questions, such as “what’s the capital of this country?” The questions that they do get tend to be much more complex, such as a patron asking for help navigating a medical database or help accessing and then filling out a government form.

Librarians are also often on the front lines for people who aren’t big technology users who now want to use technology. People will come to the library to learn how to use the internet or to create an email address. A lot of people will come into libraries right after the holidays with their tablet or e-reader still in the box and say, "Help me set this up" or "Help me to start borrowing e-books." That’s a story we’ve heard from a lot of librarians.

But to get back to the main point: We’ve generally found that the most highly engaged library users are also often the biggest technology users. There are some indications that those who are most plugged in and are more likely to be living in high-income households may not be as reliant on libraries in their personal lives. But they still tend to be active library users or value libraries’ roles in their communities. In general, library use correlates with household income and education, and people who tend to have a lot of economic, technological, and cultural resources in their lives tend to use libraries in the context of those networks.

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