In the past 12 months, 53% of Americans ages 16 and older visited a library or bookmobile; 25% visited a library website; and 13% used a handheld device such as a smartphone or tablet computer to access a library website. All told, 59% of Americans ages 16 and older had at least one of those kinds of interactions with their public library in the past 12 months.
Family members’ library use from childhood
In our national survey, we asked respondents 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.
One theme that emerged in our qualitative work was that library staff members frequently told us that they were eager to build connections with younger patrons, but often have difficulty maintaining these connections as they age. While we did not see many significant differences in younger Americans’ overall library usage, some aspects of our quantitative findings do parallel these impressions. We found, for instance, that among recent library users ages 18-24, 36% say their use has decreased within the past five years; almost a third (27%) of those in their later twenties say this as well. And even though 16-17 year-olds rival 30-49 year olds as the age groups most likely to have used a library in the past year, they are less likely to say that libraries are important to them and their families. Parents and adults in their thirties and forties, on the other hand, are more likely to say they value libraries, and are more likely than other Americans to use many library services.
Our survey showed that 77% of Americans ages 16 and older say they remember someone else in their family using public libraries as they were growing up, but a fifth (20%) say that no one in their family used the library.
Adults in their later twenties (ages 25-29) were significantly more likely than most other age groups to say that they recalled family members using the library when they were growing up (88%), as shown in the following chart; adults ages 65 and older were the least likely to say this (68%).
Although many activities at libraries do not always require a library card, many others—such as borrowing books—usually do. Currently, 63% of all Americans ages 16 and older say they have a library card, including 65% of those under age 30. Looking at teens and young adults, we find little variation between the younger age groups; 18-24 year-olds (63%) and 25-29 year-olds (65%) are as likely to own a library card as 16-17 year-olds (70%).
Younger Americans’ library use: In-person visits
When we asked about Americans’ own personal use of public libraries, we found that 84% of Americans ages 16 and older have ever visited a library or bookmobile in person, including 86% of those ages 16-29. Older Americans are less likely than those under age 50 to have visited a library, particularly those ages 65 and older.
About 64% of Americans who had ever visited a public library say they had visited a public library or bookmobile in person in the past twelve months (including 67% of those ages 16-29). This means that 53% of all Americans ages 16 and older, and 58% of those ages 16-29, visited a public library or bookmobile in person in the past year.
The following chart shows how frequently Americans in different age groups visit a library or bookmobile in person, from those who visit a library at least once a week to those who have not visited a library within the past 12 months.
Interactions with library staff
Overall, 80% of Americans say that it is “very important” to the community for libraries to have librarians available to help people find information they need, including 80% of those under age 30.
About half (50%) of those who visited a library in the past 12 months say they visit to get help from a librarian. Some 40% of library users under age 30 say they have done this in the past year, making them significantly less likely than those ages 30 and older (53%) to say so.
However, asked how often they get help from library staff in such things as answering research questions, 31% of library patrons in the past 12 months say they frequently get help, 39% say they sometimes get help, 23% say they hardly ever get help, and 7% say they never get help. Older library visitors are significantly less likely than most younger patrons to say they receive assistance “frequently.”
Asked how helpful library staffers are in general, 81% of those who had visited a library in the past 12 months say librarians are “very helpful,” 17% say “somewhat helpful,” 1% say “not too helpful” and another 1% say “not at all helpful.” Library visitors under age 30 are significantly less likely than older library visitors to say that library staff are “very helpful” (71% vs. 85%).
Younger Americans’ library use: Library websites
In all, we find that 39% of Americans ages 16 and older have gone to a library website at one time or another. Some 48% of those ages 16-29 have used library websites, compared with 36% of those ages 30 and older. Among those website users, 64% visited a library site in the previous 12 months. This means that 25% of all Americans ages 16 and older visited a library website in the past year, including 28% of those ages 16-29 and 24% of those ages 30 and older.
Among all Americans, those ages 18-49 are most likely to say they have used a library’s website in the past year, while those ages 65 and older are the least likely to say this. 12
Additionally, 13% of those ages 16 and older have visited library websites or otherwise accessed library services by mobile device, including 18% of those under age 30.13 Americans ages 18-49 are significantly more likely than older adults to have access a library website or services by mobile device.
Changes in library use in recent years
We also asked recent library users about their own use of libraries has changed, if at all, over the last five years. “Recent library users” here are those who those who either visited a public library in person in the past 12 months, have gone on a public library website in the past 12 months, or have used a cell phone, e-reader or tablet to visit a public library website or access public library resources in the past 12 months. They amount to 59% of those who are ages 16 and older in the general population.
The results of our national survey show a general fluidity in library patronage patterns:
- 26% of recent library users say their own use of local libraries has increased in the past five years, including 22% of those under age 30.
- 22% say their use has decreased. This includes 30% of those under age 30, making them significantly more likely to say this than adults ages 30 and older (19%).
- 52% say their use has stayed the same during that time period, including 47% of those under age 30.
When asked about their communities’ library use, many librarians said they felt they often “lost” younger patrons until the patrons were old enough to have children of their own—or later. “They go away [to college], and hopefully they come back to you . . . [when] they’re looking for jobs or they’re starting to get married, have a family, and have their kids,” one librarian said in a focus group. “We kind of figured that if we forged this really great relationship as they’re growing up and then they go off on their own for a little while, . . . hopefully we’ll get them back when they need us again.” She added that while she thought her library did a good job of providing programming for younger teens, she felt that it had less of a draw for older teens and adults in their early twenties:
“I think there’s a chunk of time where we are maybe not going to be able to be at the top of their list because they have university libraries and they have activities and things. They’ve just got an awful lot going on and they have more disposable income at that age. . . . I don’t know if anybody has come up with a great answer for what they really need us for in that spot.”
Among recent library users, college-aged adults ages 18-24 are significantly more likely than older adults to say that their library use has decreased in the past five years; adults in their thirties and forties are generally most likely to say that their library use has increased in that time period.
We also asked those whose use has either increased or decreased why their library use has changed. The sample size was not large enough to break out reasons by age group, although some of the answers from younger users about increased use included the need to take children or other family members to the library, using the library for research, and becoming a student. Some of the answers about why younger patrons library use decreased included being too busy and finding online resources to be more convenient.
Experiences at libraries are mostly positive
Among all Americans ages 16 and older who had ever used a public library, almost all respondents say that their experiences using public libraries are either very positive (57%) or mostly positive (41%); only about 1% say their experiences had been mostly negative.
While younger respondents also report overall positive experiences, the youngest respondents (those ages 16-17 and 18-24) are significantly less likely than older library users to report “very positive” experiences—although only 2% report mostly negative experiences overall.
How important libraries are to individuals and their communities
One section of our survey asked respondents directly about the importance of public libraries. We found that while a majority of Americans say that libraries say libraries are important to them personally, the vast majority of respondents in every age group say that libraries are important to their communities as a whole.
A majority of Americans (76% of all respondents) say that libraries are important to them and their families, and 46% say that libraries are “very important”—up from 38% saying libraries are “very important” in December 2011.14
Just 18% of 16-17 year-olds say that libraries are “very important” to them and their families, though they are among the heaviest users of libraries. Instead, Americans ages 16-17 are more likely to say that libraries are “somewhat important” (47%) or “not too important” (21%) to them and their families.
And when asked about the importance of public libraries to their community, at least nine in ten Americans ages 16 and older (91%) say they considered the library either “very important” (63%) or “somewhat important” (28%) to their community as a whole.
While a strong majority of all groups considered libraries important to their communities, adults ages 25 and older are more likely to consider the library “very important” to their community than younger respondents ages 16-24.
How much people know about what their library offers
In general, Americans feel somewhat well-informed about the various services and programs offered by their local libraries, although about a third say they know “not much” or “nothing at all.” In general, younger Americans are somewhat less aware of what is offered by their public library:
- About one in five Americans ages 16 and older (22%) feel they are aware of “all or most” of the services and programs their public library offers, including 23% of those under age 30.
- 46% of Americans feel they just know of “some” of what their library offers, including 40% of those under age 30.
- 20% of Americans say they know “not much” about services offered by their library, including 26% of those under age 30.
- 11% of Americans say they know “nothing at all” about what is available at their library, including 11% of those under age 30.
While there were few dramatic differences between age groups, younger respondents ages 16-17 (30%) and 18-24 (26%) were significantly more likely than most older age groups to say that they know “not much” about what different services and programs their public library offers. The chart below breaks down these findings further by age group.