Public libraries in American life

Last January I wrote about how Americans perceive libraries, based on a Pew research poll about library services. For one thing, Americans hold their public library in high esteem even when they don’t personally use it. It’s time for a closer look at that point.

First, the numbers

library parking deck

Library parking deck in Kansas City

The Pew questionnaire begins with some very general questions about the respondents’ communities, their access to the Internet, and their book-reading habits. The first question directly related to libraries asks about the importance of public libraries, and explicitly excludes school or university libraries.

Are libraries [very important / somewhat important / not too important/ not at all important] to [you and your family / your community as a whole]? 46% of respondents answered that the libraries are very important, and 30% said somewhat important to themselves and their families.

Regarding their community as a whole, those numbers were 63% and 28% respectively. In other words, 76% considered libraries personally important as opposed to 91% who considered them important to the community.

Women value libraries more than men. Hispanics value them more than either non-Hispanic whites or blacks. Middle-aged respondents value them more than either the youngest or oldest ones.

Parents of minor children consider them more important to themselves and their families than non-parents, but not any more important to the community.

On the other hand, it appears that household income, educational attainment, and where people live (urban, suburban, or rural communities) result in little significant difference.

Families making less than $30,000 per year value libraries more (on a personal level) than three higher income brackets. Otherwise responses that differ from the basic 76% / 91% come within the margin of error.

Personal experience with the library

Library circ desk

Circulation desk at Newburyport Public Library

Overall, 84% of respondents report having visited a public library or bookmobile at some time in their lives. Women have done so noticeably more than men. Whites are more likely than blacks to have patronized the library in person, and blacks considerably more likely than Hispanics.

Other significant demographics more likely than others to have used public libraries in person include those with at least some college education, people younger than 50, and those with higher household incomes.

In contrast, only 53% of us have set foot in either a public library building or bookmobile in the past year. Fewer than half of men, Hispanics, those 65 and older, those with no education past high school, or who are not parents of minors have done so.

On the other hand, more than 60% of 16-17-year-olds, parents of minors, and people with some post-college education have visited the library or bookmobile in person over the last year.

Between 5 and 11 percent of us visit the library at least weekly, and 18-33% at least monthly. The only parts of the demographic breakdown that stands out to me are that the higher the household income, the less likely someone is to visit the library every week. And somewhat less striking, somewhat more non-parents visit every week than parents.

I also notice that among age groups, those 65 and older (40%) and 18-29 (57%) are the least likely to have used the library in the past year. My own personal experience helps explain the latter age group.

I was in college and graduate school during those years. I practically lived at the university library, but my use of the public library was the lowest of my life. This poll excludes the use of academic libraries. 58% of people with “some college” visited public libraries in the past year, but that group surely includes older people who attended college and dropped out.



Bookmobile. Monterey (California) Public Library

The questionnaire asked people for their memories of growing up. Did they use the public library as a child? Do they remember anyone else in their family using the library?

One would think that the experience of using or not using the library in childhood would be a good predictor of whether a person will use it in adulthood. Overall, 77% of respondents recall family members using the library. In contrast, 84% have personally used the library.

There is some correlation between the demographic breakdown in this question and some of the previous ones, but it seems to me that the most important aspect of this question is its reliance on memory.

I personally have some vivid memories. My mother was volunteer cataloger for both church and school libraries and did her work at the dining room table. My father took me to the university library to gather information for school papers as early as 8th grade. But those two memories would not count for this poll.

Once, when I was no older than junior high school, I searched high and low for a book that was due at the public library. I couldn’t find it, and finally they made me pay for it. Over a year later, I found it in my little sister’s room. It seems to me that I wondered why I hadn’t looked there in the first place.

I “sold it back” to the library as soon as I could. That memory would qualify for the poll! But on the whole, I have forgotten large parts of the ordinary, day-to-day reality of my childhood. I think it was nearly 20 years ago when I recognized that 2nd grade is nearly a complete blank.

So 84% of us report having been to a public library at some time in our lives and only 77% of us remember either ourselves or family members using it in our childhood. In some cases, I hope, people who never went to the library as a kid discovered it as a grownup.

In most cases, simple forgetfulness of childhood details account for that 7% gap. In fact, I’ll bet that some of the 16% who report not having ever used a public library actually did some time when they were in school. But they just don’t remember any more and haven’t been back since.

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Source: Part 1: The role of libraries in people’s lives and communities / Pew Internet Libraries
Photo credits:
Parking deck. Some rights reserved by Jonathan Moreau
Circulation desk. Some rights reserved by Newburyport Public Library
Bookmobile. Some rights reserved by Monterey Public Library.

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