Parents think libraries are important for themselves and for their community and they visit their local public library more than other adults.
How important libraries are to individuals and their communities
In our survey, we asked people about their general library patronage — if they had experiences with libraries in childhood, how often they visit libraries or library websites, and what sort of experiences they have had in these visits. We also asked people how important libraries are, not only to them and their family, but also to their community as a whole.
How important libraries are to parents
Parents value libraries for themselves and their families, and for their communities. More than half (54%) of parents say the public library is very important for themselves and their family and 30% say libraries are somewhat important. Overall, parents of children under 18 are more likely than other adults to say the library is very important for them and their family (54% vs. 42%) and, among parents, mothers are more likely than fathers to say libraries are either very or somewhat important (87% vs. 80%).
As important as parents think libraries are for themselves and their families, they view public libraries as even more important for their communities. Two thirds (66%) of parents consider the library very important for the community and 25% say it is somewhat important. Parents and other adults do not differ when it comes to the importance of the library for the community. Among parents, mothers are more likely than fathers to say libraries are either very or somewhat important for the community (94% vs. 87%).
Library patronage questions show that more than eight in ten American adults have ever visited a library and roughly half have been to a public library in the past 12 months. While there is no difference between parents and other adults when it comes to having ever visited a library in person (85% and 84% report they have, respectively), parents of children under 18 are more likely to have visited a library in person in the past 12 months (64% vs. 49%), to have ever visited a library website (46% vs. 36%), and to have visited a library website in the past 12 months (32% vs. 22%).
For the purposes of this survey, we define ‘recent library users’ as anyone who has visited a public library in person in the past 12 months, gone on a public library website in the past 12 months, or used a cell phone, e-reader or tablet to visit a public library website or access public library resources in the past 12 months. Parents are more likely than other adults to be recent library users (71% vs. 54%).
Some other differences among parents:
Parents with higher income and education are more likely to have ever visited a library or bookmobile in person. Recent visits to the library are also more common among mothers and those with some college education. Mothers are more likely than fathers to be a recent library user and so are those with at least some college education.
- Visiting a library website is more common among mothers, those with an annual household income of $50,000 or more, and those with at least some college education.
- Use of a library website in the past year is also more common among mothers, those with an income of $50,000 or more, and those with some college education.
Recollection of library use by family members and experiences at libraries
Eight in ten parents (80%) have memories from childhood of family members using the library – slightly more than other adults (76%). Among parents, those with higher income and education are more likely to have childhood memories of library use. Parents with annual incomes of $50,000 or more are more likely than other parents to have childhood memories of library visits (85% vs. 75%) as are those with at least some college education when compared with parents who have not been to college (86% vs. 70%).
Many of the parents in our in-person focus groups said that they were introduced to libraries by their parents or by their schools. In general, they said they had very positive memories of their early library use:
“My parents were real big on [the library]. It was a treat for us, twice a week after church . . . You behave, you [get] to go to the library and get a book, get two books if you’re real good, read them that week and bring them back. So I think a lot of children these days lack that same experience [that] we felt associated to it, being kind of a reward.”
Some said that they weren’t sure their children would have the same sort of memories:
Respondent: “[The library] always had like a children section. You have the children section and you have the adult section and then if you start laughing too loud like in your children section, there’s always that librarian that’d come around the corner like it’s too loud and I know your mother or whatever so yes, I mean it would just – that’s was just like where you sit in that little table when you’re passing those things.”
Respondent: “[We had] tiny libraries at the church and . . . it was like a [place to] socialize. A lot of times those children are telling you [about] other things that you’re going to enjoy at the library, [things that] they’re just doing. It’s just like networking and talking to the other friends.”
Moderator: “Do you think it’s the same for children today?”
Respondent: “No, they’re in front of a computer. Nobody talks to nobody it seems.”
Moderator: “Even at the library, they’re doing the same stuff.”
Not all the parents in our focus groups had experiences with libraries growing up, although some of them began using libraries later in life:
“[G]rowing up, the library was intimidating to me actually because I wasn’t [a big] reader. On top of that . . . the first 20 years of your career you’re working your butt off. You don’t have time for anything. You’re raising children just like today. I delegated that part of it to my wife to let her take the children to the library and she did. She took them and they were always into it.”
Generally, the overall perception of library experience is positive for almost all Americans and does not differ between parents and other adults. Roughly six in ten parents and other adults rate their overall library experience as very positive and an additional four in ten in each group describe it as mostly positive.
Parents are more likely than other adults to have a library card and are more likely to say their use of the library has increased over the past five years, possibly because they became parents during this time or their children grew to an age that encouraged library visits.
Nearly three quarters (73%) of parents of children under 18 have a library card, compared with 59% of adults who do not have children under 18. Among parents, mothers are more likely than fathers to have a library card (82% vs. 63%) and so are those with at least some college education (79% vs. 64%).
Changes in library use in recent years
The Pew Internet survey asked recent library users about their use of libraries over the last five years. The results show there is fluidity in library patronage patterns and differences between parents and other adults:
- 30% of parents who are recent library users say their own use of local libraries has increased in the past five years, compared with 23% of other adults.
- 17% of parents and 25% of other adults say their use has decreased.
- 52% of both parents and other adults say their use has stayed the same during that time period.
Among parents, those with some college education are more likely to say their use of the library has increased over the past five years (35% vs. 22%).
The following table shows the reasons parents give when asked why their library use has increased over recent years. Changes in library usage for parents are driven mostly by children and the internet. The most common reason parents give for their increased use of the library is to take children, grandchildren, or other family members (54% with increased library use gave this reason). The most common reason parents give for a decrease in library use, given by slightly less than half (47%), is use and convenience of the internet for getting books and doing research.
Parents with younger children (under 12) are more likely than parents of children 12 to 17 to say that taking children is a reason for their increased use of the library (62% vs. 19%) while parents with only teenagers are more likely than others to say their increased use is to do research (29% vs. 7%).
The sample size for this open-ended question is small so there are few meaningful differences between parents and other adults.
Parents visit the library fairly frequently and slightly more often than other adults. When they go, they browse, borrow books or DVDs, or attend classes or events for children or teens. About one in six (16%) parents go to the library at least once a week or more, a quarter (24%) go several times a month and another quarter (27%) go at least once a month. One third (32%) of parents visit the library less than once a month. In comparison, four in ten (41%) other adults visit the library less than once per month.
Among parents, mothers visit the library more often than fathers -21% of mothers go weekly, compared with 10% of fathers – and 23% of those with income of less than $50,000 go weekly, compared with 9% of higher income parents.
In addition to asking people about their general feelings about libraries and their patterns of patronage, Pew Internet’s survey explored in depth what people do at libraries. The activities reported below were asked of the 64% of American parents who say they visited a library or bookmobile in the past 12 months.
Activities at libraries
Here is a rundown of the things parents of children under 18 do at libraries among those who have visited a library or bookmobile in the past 12 months:
Eighty percent of parents have visited the library in the past 12 months to browse the shelves for books or media (81%) or to borrow a book (81%). Nearly two-thirds (64%) of parents have brought a child to the library to attend a program or event specifically for children or teens. Other library activities that were reported by roughly half of parents include research activities (research topic of interest 55% or use a research database 51%), help from librarians (53%), to sit and read (50%) or to borrow a DVD (50%). A third visited the library to read newspapers or magazines (30%) and other activities are reported by two in ten or fewer.
There are some significant differences between parents and other adults and between parents in different demographic groups. These differences are described below.
Borrow print books
Parents were more likely than other adults to visit a public library to borrow print books (81% vs. 68%).
Browse the shelves for books or media
Parents are more likely than other adults to visit the library to browse (81% vs. 70%) and among parents, those with at least some college education were more likely than parents with no college education to say they visited the library just to browse the shelves (86% vs. 68%).
Attend or bring a younger person to a class, program, or event designed for children or teens
Roughly two thirds of parents (64%) visited the library to attend a class or event for children as, compared with about one third (31%) of other adults. Parents with at least one child under 12 are more likely than parents with no young children to say they visit the library to attend a class or event for children or teens (69% vs. 47%) as are parents with at least some college (71% vs. 46%).
Research topics that interest them
Lower income parents are more likely than wealthier parents to go to the library to research topics of interest to them (65% vs. 47%). Parents with a teenager are more likely than parents who do not have any teenagers to say they visit the library to research a topic of interest to them (64% vs. 46%).
Get help from a librarian
Mothers are more likely than fathers to say they visit the library to get help from a librarian (57% vs. 46%), as are parents who are over 40 (60% vs. 46%) and those with income of less than $50,000 (60% vs. 43%).
Sit, read, and study, or watch or listen to media
Those earning less than $50,000 were more likely than other parents to visit a library for this reason (58% vs. 41%)
Use a research database
Parents earning less than $50,000 a year were more likely than others to visit for this reason (60% vs. 39%)
Borrow a DVD or videotape of a movie or TV show
Half (50%) of parents visit the library to borrow a DVD or video tape, compared with about a third (35%) of other adults. Older parents are more likely than those under 40 to say they visit the visit the library to borrow a DVD or videotape (60% vs. 43%), as are those with at least some college education (55% vs. 38%).
Read or check out printed magazines or newspapers
Parents who earn less than $50,000 a year are more likely than those earning $50,000 or more to say they visit the library to read or check out print magazines or newspapers (45% vs. 17%).
How frequently parents receive assistance from library staff
Similar to all adults, parents of minor children seek help from library staff frequently and they find the library staff to be very helpful.
A third (33%) of parents say they frequently get help from librarian staff and four in ten (40%) say they sometimes get help. Among parents, those with less than $50,000 income are more likely than those with income over $50,000 to seek help from library staff frequently or sometimes (78% vs. 67%).
Roughly eight in ten parents (79%) say the library staff are very helpful and an additional 18% say staff is somewhat helpful.
How much people know about what their library offers
In addition to asking people how they use their local public libraries, we also asked them how much they know about the different services and programs their library offers. In general, parents rate their knowledge of library services pretty high. About a quarter (27%) of parents say they know all or most of the services and programs offered by the library and half (47%) say they know some of what their library has to offer. One quarter (25%) of parents say they don’t know much or know nothing of their public library’s offerings. Parents are better informed than other adults about library services, which may be reflective of their increased usage. One third (34%) of other adults say they don’t know much or know nothing about what their library has to offer (vs. 25% of parents).
Among parents, there are demographic groups who appear to be more well-informed about library offerings than others. Mothers say they are more well-informed than fathers – 32% say they are know all or most, compared with 21% of fathers – as do lower income parents when compared with those making $50,000 or more (31% vs. 21%). Parents with no children under 12 are more likely than parents with a young child to say they know about all or almost all of the services offered by the public library (36% vs. 24%).
In our focus groups, many parents said that they had very positive feelings about their libraries and library staff. “In my library the staff is wonderful,” one parent told us. “I love the staff. I love the people who work at the front. They’re always just so welcoming and they’re very community oriented.” However, many often wished that they knew more about what was happening at their library—“there’s so much good stuff going on but no one tells anybody,” one said.
“They do have a thing what’s going on with the children each month. There’s a printout but I forget to grab those and this is not the way, some of [the activities] need reservations. . . . I would love to get it through the email, as in getting everything else that way.”
“One thing I didn’t like at my library, I didn’t notice were – as far as the classes that they have to offer, I didn’t see like much information or any big boards, “Hey, we have classes coming on this week or this week” and just I guess the advertisement part of it, I just didn’t notice that. And, it’s like maybe they would have sent something in the mail or something somewhere. It’s just I don’t know – or even pass it out to the schools in the area.”
Several said they would like their libraries to coordinate with local schools to relay information about library hours and activities:
“They should give some of this information to the schools around the community – and the schools, we get folders every week and maybe I don’t know put some stuff in there to say, ‘Hey, this is going on this weekend.’ That’s how our school does it. Maybe go out to schools some more than just the library itself.”
Some parents said that they learn about library events mostly through word-of-mouth:
Respondent: Like you get to see people who frequent your library. You all become like library buddies like you know what they thinking because you’re there and interact with your children and they kind of see you and you see that person maybe on the bus or something like that and I’m like, “Girl, did you find it out? You heard if they’re doing this or not?”
Respondent: Or a kid tells your kid.
Respondent: Yes, so that’s usually how it gets done.