How the American public perceives and uses libraries

Library circ desk

Circulation desk at Newburyport Public Library

The Pew Research Center has lately issued a substantial report called Library Services in the Digital Age. I will explore this important research in depth for future posts, but for now I’ll just mention some things that immediately catch my eye.

The importance of libraries

According to the findings, 91% of Americans ages 16 and older consider libraries important community resources and 76% consider them important to themselves and their families. Oddly enough, only 84% have actually visited a library at some point in their lives, while only 59% have visited either a library, a bookmobile, or a public library website in the past year.

It would seem, then, that people’s stated opinions about the value of libraries varies from their actual behavior. On the other hand, only 77% report childhood memories of someone in their family using the library. That is, fewer people remember growing up in a family of library users than have used libraries at some time in their own life.

The more detailed sections of the report make it clear that people who grew up in families that used the library are much more likely to use the library as adults than those who didn’t. The poll demonstrates, though, that some small percentage of people who did haven’t used a library themselves. A significantly larger percentage of those who didn’t have grown up to be library users.

How important are libraries in your life?

  • Very important
  • Important
  • Somewhat important
  • Not very important
  • Not important at all


More polls: dollarstore

Books and other printed materials

Despite the rising importance of the Internet, 80% of the population still considers lending books a very important library service, and 80% also considers the provision of reference librarians a very important service. Both of those figures are more than the 77% who call free computer and Internet access very important.

People who have visited a library in the past year have done so for numerous reasons that have nothing to do with books, but 73% have borrowed printed books, 73% have browsed the shelves, 31% visit in order to read newspapers or other periodicals.

The percentages for browsers and borrowers is the same, but that hardly means that people browse in order to borrow. Surely some people go to a library for a particular book or books, use the catalog to find their location, and borrow their choices without looking at anything else nearby. On the other hand, 49% visit in order to sit and read in the library. That is larger than the percentage of people who go there specifically to read periodicals.

Print collections are still growing. The Pew researchers raised the question of whether libraries should move all of the books off site to make more space for people to read and meet. Here, the public is split, with 20% answering that libraries should definitely do so and 39% answering that they definitely should not.

Off-site storage is expensive to obtain and maintain. Depending on how far away it is, it forces patrons to wait hours or days before they can get the materials they want. I reported in an earlier post that some academic libraries have moved all of their printed materials to very compact areas accessible only by robots. I am unaware of public libraries adopting that technology, but it would be cost prohibitive for all but the very largest.

What is your level of use of print materials?

  • I use libraries entirely for print materials
  • I use print materials more than electronic materials
  • I use print less than electronic materials
  • I hardly use print at all


More polls: Gullbrev

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Internet and electronic media

It seems odd that 77% of the population considers free access to computers and the Internet is a very important library service, but only 26% say they have actually taken advantage of it! (In contrast, 49% of library users—49% of the 59% of the population who used the library recently at all—visited in order to use the library’s subscriptions to proprietary databases.)

Patrons use computers for a variety of uses; 66% have used the Internet to do research for projects at school or work, but 63% have used it just to pass the time browsing.

People have used library computers to get a variety of information, take an online class or certification program, use email, look for work, use social networking sites, shop, pay bills, or in short anything that people do with computers at home or at work.

As computers have become more and more important in society, so they have become in libraries. The Pew report lists a number of computer services that patrons want to see their local library offer.

The report also includes input from a panel of librarians. Most of what the public wants is either among their library’s current offerings or is definitely in the planning stages. American libraries have always been service-oriented institutions, very responsive to the needs of their communities.

It’s fascinating, though, that so many more people in this country consider libraries important than have actually visited either a library or a library web site.
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