January 24, 2014

10 facts about Americans and public libraries

Technology and the internet are changing Americans’ reading habits and also their relationship with libraries. Half of Americans now own a tablet or e-reader and libraries have responded by expanding their digital offerings.

But what hasn’t changed is Americans’ love for books. American adults still read about as much as ever and overwhelmingly say libraries play an important role in their communities. In advance of the American Library Association’s Midwinter Convention (#alamw14) in Philadelphia, here are some key facts and trends we have chronicled in our research on America’s public libraries.

1E-book reading is growing, but printed books still dominate the reading world. 28% of American adults ages 18 and older read an e-book in the past year, up from 17% in 2011. Still, 69% read a printed book, about the same as last year. Only 4% of readers are “e-book only” readers. The vast majority of e-book readers also read a printed book. (Report)

2The rise of e-book reading is tied to the steady increase in ownership of tablet computers and e-readers. 50% of adults now own either a tablet computer or an e- reader. Ownership of both devices jumped this year during the holiday gift-giving season. But people also read e-books on their cell phones (32% of e-book readers did that in the past 12 months) and on desktop or laptop computers (29% of e-book readers did that in the past 12 months). (Report)


3Americans appreciate libraries, especially for the role they play in communities. 90% of Americans say the closing of their local public library would impact their community and 67% said it would affect them and their families. (Report)

4Mothers love libraries. Mothers are more likely than fathers to read to their children every day (55% vs. 45%). Mothers are also more likely than fathers to have a library card and to have visited a library in the past year. (Report)

5Access to books, media, and quiet, safe reading places top the list of favorite library services. 80% of Americans say no-cost access to books and media is the most important service libraries provide, followed by librarian assistance (76%), having a quiet and safe place to read (75%) and research resources (72%). (Report)

6The public’s highest priorities for libraries center on kids and literacy. 85% of Americans say libraries “should definitely” coordinate more closely with local schools. And 82% believe libraries should provide free literacy programs to young children, which may include traditional reading, writing and comprehension as well as technology and new media literacies. (Report)

7Library websites are catching on. 44% of those ages 16 and older have ever used a library website, up from 39% in 2012, and 30% used one in the past 12 months. Website users tend to be higher income and well educated. (Report)

8Older teens and young adults are sometimes the most likely to desire new library technologies. 45% of young adults would very likely use a mobile GPS app to find material inside the library. They’re also the most likely to say they would use Redbox-style kiosks to check out library books or movies if they were placed around their towns.  (Report)

9One challenge libraries face is simply making people aware of all the services they offer. 30% of library users say they know little or nothing about the services their library provides. (Report)

10Library use ebbs and flows for many Americans. 26% of library patrons say their use has gone up in the past 5 years; 22% say it has gone down. (Report) Just before the Public Library Association conference in March, the Pew Research Center will issue a special report on a survey of 6,200 Americans showing there are 7 distinct groups of library users and 2 distinct groups of non-users of libraries, each with its own habits, priorities, and demographic makeup. (Sign up to be notified of this report when it is published.)

Topics: Libraries

  1. Photo of Lee Rainie

    is director of internet and technology research at Pew Research Center.


  1. Sarah3 years ago

    This is an impressive survey and it’s wonderfully presented here.

    I’m wondering if there is a better way to summarize #5 (Access to books, media, and quiet, safe reading places top the list of favorite library services). The summary states that 80% respondents chose no-cost access to books and media as the most important service, followed by 3 other services in descending order of importance (72% – 75%). Of course, those numbers don’t add up. After looking at the table, one sees that it’s more complicated that that, because respondents were not asked to choose the most important service or put them in order of importance. They were given at least 3 ways to rate each one (Very important/Somewhat important/ [Not important?]). What do you think?

    Thank you.

    1. Lee Rainie3 years ago

      Hi Sarah: For better or worse, this is the most accurate and clear way to represent the findings we got. We did not ask people for their personal priorities — that is, to rank order the options.

      We learned in focus groups that people aren’t wild about being pinned down that way because that is NOT how they think of library services. They think of libraries as offering an array of things that they like and need at varying levels of urgency depending on the circumstances of the moment. We did not feel that we would be getting the most useful or accurate answer about library services if we forced respondents to set priorities.

  2. Gary Plazyk4 years ago

    It would be VERY interesting to see how the “Books and media” category would look if Books and Media were reported separately. A librarian friend says that most of the patrons that come into his library only check out videos – never books – or use the computers.

  3. Vanessa Valentine4 years ago

    I am an avid reader since the age of 4, Thanks Dr. Seuss & the St. Louis County Library. My weekly visit consists of using their computer database to check out new releases on DVD, Wii & X-Box gaming systems, or my favorite author. I’ll request an item not available at my local branch and/or drive to one of many branches within a 10 mile radius; Gotta be a Really good book though. Love the library!!

  4. AJJ4 years ago

    When my children were younger we couldn’t afford all the “cool’ technology. I would take them weekly to the library to find books to read, as well as books on tape to listen too. My children love books, both eBooks and hardbound copies, especially the hardbound copies. Their love of literature came because of our libraries.

    Additionally, as a teacher I have students who still don’t have computers in their home. When they need a computer to do an assignment they go to the library. I hope our libraries are around for a long time.

  5. Glenda Brill4 years ago

    Thanks for this article. I love books and thought that the local library would some day become obsolete because of the increase in e-Books and computers. Now I see there are many Americans who still love and read books, the printed page like myself. Hope it stays like this because I would hate to see all books being replaced with e-books.

  6. Tony Zoars4 years ago

    Libraries are essential in rural areas. Sometimes the local library and the post office are the primary reasons residents make a daily visit to town. Smaller communities lack anchor stores so the library takes on that role. Rural communities are also given short shrift with high speed internet access thus the library takes on the role of internet cafe.

    1. Lee Rainie4 years ago

      Hi Tony:

      Thanks so much for your comment. You might be particularly interested in the findings in this report of ours that looked at how people living in different places engaged with their libraries and reading: libraries.pewinternet.org/2012/1….

      You also might find useful data in this presentation of mine that was given to an audience of rural librarians: pewinternet.org/Presentations/20….

      Thanks, Lee

  7. Christie Kaaland4 years ago

    If 51% users overall believe libraries are important for providing a “safe quiet place” and from your May 2013 report (“Parents, Children, Libraries, and Reading”) 71% parents say a major reason libraries are important is that they provide “a safe place for children”, what would the data from communities that have experienced great tragedies (Newport, CT) or devastating disasters (e.g., Hurricane Sandy) look like? A greater role that libraries can fill is the response and recovery efforts from human-made and natural disasters.

    1. Lee Rainie4 years ago


      We don’t have data down to the level of individual library systems — and we didn’t ask specifically in our survey about how people might feel about the library as haven after a disaster or trauma. But I have heard a lot about the special role libraries have played in particularly hard-hit communities and know that the way libraries responded after these kinds of events has been widely described at librarian gatherings.

      Thanks so much for your comment, Lee