The American public and its libraries

Sterling Public Library, Colorado

Sterling Public Library, Colorado

The most recent Pew Research Center poll of library usage includes a fascinating statistic: 91% of respondents consider public libraries either very important or somewhat important to their community.  But only 76% consider it very important or somewhat important to themselves or their families!

One non-library user expressed support for the services they provide to people less well off. That person had enough money to choose various alternatives. I doubt if that sentiment represents the entire 15% of Americans who consider libraries important for the community but not themselves.

Who are library users?


Bookmobile. Monterey (California) Public Library

The poll only tracks people who are at least 16; 84% of respondents report having visited a library or bookmobile in person at least once in their lives.

My own memory of elementary school is hazy. If I had been to a library then, but not since, I would have had to count myself among the 16% of people who responded that they had not visited a library in person.

The poll breaks all the answers down demographically, but a clear majority of all age, race, income, and other groups recall personally visiting a library or bookmobile.

That percentage drops to 53% when people were asked if they had visited a library in person in the past year. Nowadays, people can use library resources through their computers or cell phones. The question specifically excludes electronic visits, so it does not reflect actual library usage.

Here the demographic breakdowns show some real differences:

  • Hispanics visit the library less than non-Hispanic whites or blacks.
  • Parents of minor children visit the library more than non-parents .
  • The majority of respondents with at least some college visited the library in the past year; the majority with no college did not.
  • 62% of high-school aged respondents visited the library in the past year. Decreasing majorities in older age groups did until age 65. Only 40% of respondents 65 or older used a public library in person.
  • Middle income people visited the library more than either those at the top or bottom of the income scale.
  • Living in an urban, suburban, or rural area made no significant difference in library usage.

No more than 11% of respondents in any demographic visited the library at least once a week. Three groups reported that percentage: non-Hispanic blacks, people with annual household income of less than $30,000, and suburbanites.

Those least likely to visit the library every week are those with annual  household income of $75,000 or more (5%), men (6%), and high-school graduates (6%), who used the library weekly less than both more educated and less educated people.

A quarter of the population visited the library at least monthly, a fifth of the population less than monthly within the past year, and 47%  not at all within the past year.

Who grew up in a family of public library users?

Library services for children and families

Special children’s program, Asheboro (North Carolina) Public Library

In the report, the first question concerned whether respondents remembered other family members besides themselves using the library. I’m considering this question last in order to compare it with the more personal questions.

A fifth of respondents say that no one in the household used the library when they were growing up, while 77% recalled that other family members did.

Only 53% of high school dropouts and 58% of Hispanics recalled anyone else using the library. Only two other groups (those 65 or older and those making less than $30,000 a year) gave less than 70% yes answers.

That 77% is close to the 76% who consider the library important personally, although I haven’t dug into the raw data to see if those responses came from the same people.

Since 91% consider libraries Important for the community as a whole, it appears that most of the 23% who either said that no one in their family used the library or apparently said they didn’t remember still consider libraries important for the community as a whole.

Libraries enjoy a great deal of good will from people who don’t use them, and even from people who don’t recall seeing anyone else use them when they were growing up.

The library is much more than a mere warehouse for the collection. Most of the population seems to understand.

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Photo credits:
Sterling Public Library. Some rights reserved by Jeffrey Beall
Bookmobile. Some rights reserved by Monterey Public Library.
Children’s program. Some rights reserved by Asheboro Public Library

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