What do Americans think of libraries? Poll results

Bookmobile--library users

Bookmobile. Monterey (California) Public Library

Do you know all the educational services your library provides?

According to a recent Pew Research poll, many American’s don’t. A majority thinks libraries offer acceptable service for their communities’ educational needs; 37% answered “very well” and 39% answered “pretty well.

Most people, library users or not, are satisfied for themselves, their families, and their communities.

If you are among the people who think libraries do a good job, but don’t know what all they offer, you can be even more satisfied. 

Who are library users today?

The number of people who visit libraries in person has dropped since the last Pew survey on the subject. As I reported earlier, 84% of respondents in 2012 recalled visiting a library at least once in their lives. Only 53% had been to one in the previous year.

In this year’s poll, the numbers drop to 78% and 44% respectively. The number of people who used a library website in the previous 12 months has remained steady: 30% in the previous poll and 31% now. Pew didn’t ask about library apps in the last poll, but 9% have used one in the past year.

Women have visited a library or bookmobile more than men. The more education someone has, the more likely to be a library user. More than half of respondents 18-29 have been to a library the past year, and the percentage drops for each age bracket.

Rural residents are less likely to have used a library than urban or suburban residents. Hispanics have visited one recently in significantly lower rates than blacks or whites.

Life-long learning: personal

Library users

Library users

About three in four American adults (73%) say that the label “lifelong learner” describes them “very well.”

A slightly higher percentage (74%) took part in some kind of personal learning experience over the previous year.

And 63% have taken part in some kind of professional learning—courses or training related to their job or career path.

Among recent library users, 97% of people who visited a library or bookmobile say that “lifelong learner” describes them either very well or pretty well. And 98% of library website users say the same. Those who answered “very well” include 79% of library users and 69% of non-users.

Also, 84% of library patrons fit the poll’s definition of personal learner, compared to 66% of non-users. Personal learners among library users read more how-to publications, take more courses, or attend more learning-related events than non-users.

Other places besides libraries offer learning opportunities. And libraries offer entertainment and information unrelated to these activities. In the past year, about 23% of personal learners have used the library for it. People 65 or older, people in households with less than $50,000 annual income, and women pursue learning at the library at more than this average rate.

Regardless of where they participate in learning activities, library users participate in them more than non-users. They are also more likely to say they benefit from them. Library users also consider it more important than non-users that everyone should keep learning throughout life.

Professional learners

Visiting a library or bookmobile in person makes a statistically significant difference among personal learners, but not professional learners. Those who use a library website, however, are more likely to participate in job-related learning.

Some professional learners need a certificate or license. Some seek training related to their current job or to get a promotion. Some want to find a job with a new employer, and perhaps a new career. Others hedge their bets because of concern over possible downsizing.

Professional learners may have more access to the Internet than retired or unemployed people. Perhaps they can find work-related information easily enough on the library’s web site that they don’t need to visit personally.

There are few significant differences among professional learners.  Hispanics are twice as likely to get work-related training from the library than black or white workers. That despite the fact that Hispanics in general use the library less than blacks or whites.

Library users report two benefits from professional learning more than non-users. They are more likely to grow their professional network and to advance within their current organization. Users and non-users got the same benefit when it came to finding new jobs or a new career path.

How well do Americans understand local library services?

eBook readers -- library users

eBook readers and potential eBook readers

People seem to regard libraries’ service to the community more highly than to themselves and their families.

Only 11% said that libraries didn’t serve the educational needs of the community, but 21% felt that they didn’t serve their own or their family’s needs.

Of that 21%, 12% of respondents said the library didn’t meet their needs at all well (and 9% said not very well).

About 12% didn’t know if libraries were serving their community, but only 7% gave that answer for themselves and their families.

Not surprisingly, people who have actually been to a library in the past year and those who identify as life-long learners regard libraries more favorably than those who haven’t. The study reports no important differences in the answers by personal vs professional learners

The survey asked if the respondents’ libraries offered five different services:

  • Lending e-books
  • Online career and job-related resources
  • Online GED or high-school equivalency classes
  • Programs on starting a new business
  • Online programs that certify that people have mastered new skills

No data exists on what percentage of libraries offer online certification. Otherwise, statistics indicate that a significant gap in perception. Whatever the percentage of libraries offer one of the programs, only between two-thirds and three-fourths of their users knew about it. Regarding lending of e-books, only 10 % of libraries don’t offer the service, but 16% of respondents said that their library doesn’t offer it.

ServiceLibraries that offerPoll: yesPoll: noPoll: don't know
E-book lending90%62%16%22%
Online career resources62%41%21%38%
Online GED classes35%26%27%47%
Programs for starting a business33%24%28%47%
Online certification of mastering new skillsNo data24%27%49%

The study breaks down all of these percentages demographically. Men, blacks, Hispanics, younger people, and the less well-educated more likely said that their library did not offer a particular service.

So do you know if your library offers services you might be interested in using? It’s easy enough to find out if you don’t. Just visit your library’s web site.

And if you think your library does not serve you well, find a way to express yourself without rancor or bitterness. It might make a difference.

Source: Libraries and learning / Pew Research Center, April 7, 2016

Photo credits:
Bookmobile. Some rights reserved by Monterey Public Library.
Library users. Some rights reserved by liz west.
E-book readers. Some rights reserved by Cloned Milkmen

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