In broad strokes, younger Americans’ library habits are very similar to those of older adults. They also value many of the same things in public libraries, and have generally similar views on what services and resources libraries should offer to their communities.
However, our research also finds some notable differences, especially related to technology at libraries. Americans under age 30 are significantly more likely than older adults to have used the computers or internet at a library, for instance, and 97% say that this is an important service for libraries to provide to their communities. Younger library patrons are also significantly more likely than those over age 30 to use the library as a space to just sit and read, study, or watch or listen to media.
The sections that follow will examine younger library patrons’ habits and expectations in three loose categories:
- Books and media at libraries;
- Technology and information resources, including research databases, job search and career resources, and automated library services; and
Programs and spaces for younger patrons, and the role of the library as a community space.
An overview of patrons’ activities at libraries
In our national survey, we asked respondents who had visited a library or bookmobile in-person in the past 12 months about what they did at the library. We asked about 13 different activities, from browsing the shelves for books and media to attending classes and events (and explore them in detail beyond age group analysis in our recent report Libraries in the Digital Age.15) Below is an overview of how Americans use libraries; these activities will be discussed thematically in later sections.
Some 53% of Americans ages 16 and older visited a library or bookmobile in person in the past 12 months; the following chart breaks these activities down by general age group (ages 16-29 and ages 30 and older). Among recent library visitors, those ages 16-29 were significantly more likely to have visited the library just to study, sit and read, or watch or listen to media. Meanwhile, recent library visitors ages 30 and older were significantly more likely to have received help from a librarian in that time period, and to have brought a younger person to a class or event for children or teens. Older adults were also more likely to have borrowed a DVD or music CD.
An overview of public priorities and expectations
In order to learn more about public priorities for libraries, we asked national survey respondents how important, if at all, they think it is for public libraries to provide various services to the community. All but one of the services are considered to be “very important” by a majority of respondents.
We also asked our national survey respondents, as well as our focus groups, about some different ways public libraries could change the way they serve the public, and whether or not they thought public libraries should implement these changes (if they do not offer these services already). In a separate, qualitative questionnaire aimed at public library staff members, we also asked librarians and other library workers their thoughts on these services.
Younger Americans were more often in favor of these ideas than older adults (specifically adults ages 50 and older), including having more comfortable spaces for reading, working, and relaxing, offering more interactive learning exhibits, and moving most services online.
I. Books and media
Books remain strongly associated with libraries in Americans’ minds. Overall, 80% of Americans say that it is “very important” for libraries to provide books to the community for borrowing. Americans ages 16-29 are significantly less likely to say books at libraries are “very important” than adults ages 30 and older (75% vs.82%), but just as likely to say that books are important overall (94% vs.96%).
We see this reflected in what recent library visitors do at libraries:
- Almost three-quarters (73%) of Americans ages 16 and older who visited a library in the past 12 months also say they visit to borrow print books, including 72% of those under age 30.
- A similar number (73%) say they visit to browse the shelves for books or media, including 74% of those under age 30.
We also asked about periodicals, and found that about three in ten (31%) Americans ages 16 and older who visited a library in the past year visit to read or check out printed magazines or newspapers, including 34% of those under age 30.
Looking at other forms of media people visit the library for:
- About 40% of those who visited a library in the past 12 months say they visit to borrow a DVD or videotape of a movie or TV show, including 33% of those under age 30. Adults ages 30-49 (45%) and ages 50-64 (49%) are most likely say they come to the library for this reason.
- About 17% of those who visited a library in the past 12 months say they visit to borrow or download an audio book, including 14% of those under age 30.
- Some 16% of those who visited a library in the past 12 months say they visit to borrow a music CD, including 10% of those under age 30.
II. Technology and information resources
Some 73% of Americans ages 16 and older say there are places in their community where they can access the internet or use a computer for free, including 77% of those under age 30.17 And 35% of Americans say they have used those free access points, including 44% of those under age 30 (and 55% of those ages 16-17).
Use of computers and the internet at libraries
We asked those who had visited libraries in the past 12 months if they used the internet or computers at the library in a question designed to include people who used the wired computers at the library as well as people who had used the library Wi-Fi connection.18 We found that about a quarter (26%) of Americans ages 16 and older had connected to the internet at the library in the past year, including 38% of those ages 16-29.
Additionally, some 36% of those who had ever visited a library in person say the library staff had helped them use a computer or the internet at a library. Those under age 30 are significantly more likely than older library visitors to say library staff has helped them use a computer or the internet at the library (43% vs.34%).
Among the 26% of Americans ages 16 and older who used the internet or computers at the library in the past year:
- 66% of Americans ages 16 and older who used the internet at a library in the past 12 months did research for school or work, including 77% of those under the age of 30.19
- 63% say they browsed the internet for fun or to pass the time, including 70% of those under the age of 30.
- 54% say they used email, including 60% of those under the age of 30. Those ages 18-49 are especially likely to say they did this activity.
- 47% say they got health information, including 42% of those under the age of 30.
- 41% say they visited government websites or got information about government services, including 40% of those under the age of 30.
- 36% say they looked for jobs or applied for jobs online, including 38% of those under the age of 30.
- 35% say they visited social networking sites, including 46% of those under the age of 30 (who are significantly more likely than older adults to report this use).
- 26% say they downloaded or watched online video, including 33% of those under the age of 30 (who are significantly more likely than older adults to report this use).
- 16% say they bought a product online, including 14% of those under the age of 30.
- 16% say they paid bills or did online banking, including 18% of those under the age of 30.
- 16% say they took an online class or completed an online certification program, including 13% of those under the age of 30.
While we did not ask a question about whether library internet users depend on the library as their primary internet connection, we did ask respondents how important they think it is to have free access to computers and the internet at the library in their community. According to the results of our national survey, three-quarters (77%) of Americans think it is “very important” for public libraries to provide free access to computers and the internet to the community, including 75% of Americans under age 30.
In response to the open-ended questions on our separate online questionnaire, several librarians agreed that providing both access to the internet and assistance with digital tasks were important roles for libraries in their communities. One wrote, “Not everyone has access to computers and internet on a regular basis. . . . Even children, teens, and young adults who do not have the resources to have internet/computer access 24 hours each day are not able to complete tasks online which others may find simple.”
Several of the questions in our nationally representative phone survey touched on how Americans use public libraries for their research needs. In general, we found wide support for libraries providing research resources, including specialized resources that otherwise may not available for free to the general public—for instance, 96% of Americans under age 30 say it is important for libraries to provide research resources such as free databases.
In looking at how Americans use libraries for research, we find:
- Over half (54%) of those who visited a library in the past 12 months say they visit to research topics that interest them, including 60% of those under age 30.
- And as mentioned earlier, among those ages 16 and older who used the computers or internet at a library in the past 12 months, a majority (66%) used it to do research for school or work, including 77% of those under the age of 30.
In focus groups and in our online panel, librarians echoed these findings in describing how the library is used by older teens and young adults for studying and research. One library staff member especially emphasized the role of the library as a physical space for study, writing that librarians should “reach out more to young adults and offer a safe place for them to study, to ask questions and discover answers.”
In addition to space and basic resources such as computers and internet access, most libraries also offer access to specialized digital resources such as subscription databases—and Americans identify these services as key resources for the community. In fact, almost three-quarters (73%) of Americans ages 16 and older say it is “very important” for public libraries to provide research resources such as free databases to the community, including 76% of those under age 30.
Overall, about 46% of those who visited a library in the past 12 months say they visit to use a research database, including 51% of those under age 30. Library users ages 65 and older are the least likely age group to say they come to the library for this reason (33%).
In discussions about providing research databases for the public, many librarians in our focus groups said that patrons are not generally aware of the databases that are available or how these databases differ from the resources available through a public search engine such as Google. Several cited students’ lack of awareness in particular. One member of our online panel wrote: “We . . . need to encourage young adults to use the resources we provide for free-databases, e-books, programs, etc. rather than relying solely on Google and other search engines.”
One librarian said that while students weren’t always aware of databases, the library staff made an effort to teach them about research resources:
“We’re big advocates of the databases, especially with the students when they come in, and they have to do a research paper and they’re looking for articles on certain things, so letting them know that you don’t necessarily have to have a physical journal . . . I can show you how you can access the journals from home.”
However, another issue identified by library staff members was potential confusion among both high school and college students as to whether using online databases would be considered an “online source” by their instructors.20 “They don’t understand or care about the difference between a database that they get to from the internet and the internet,” one librarian said in a focus group. As another librarian in an in-person focus group put it, “Their teachers say, ‘No internet resources. You can’t use the internet.’ It’s like you want to say, ‘But this isn’t really the internet. It’s not what your teacher meant.'” 21
Several librarians cited their efforts to surface a variety of databases, beyond those used for research. One said, “There are a number of databases just for people who are seeking jobs, careers, skills, GED, testing sites that are buried that we want to bring out and highlight and make them more visible for the customer.”
Many librarians did cite job search and career resources as a major service provided by their library, a view that is shared by the general public: Two-thirds (67%) of Americans ages 16 and older think it is “very important” to the community for public libraries to provide job, employment and career resources, including 71% of those under age 30. And over a third (36%) of Americans ages 16 and older who used the internet at a library in the past 12 months say they did so to look for jobs or apply for jobs online, including 38% of those under the age of 30.
New digital resources and automation
Library staff members in our focus groups and online panel discussed various ways libraries focus younger patrons after high school. Participants often said that younger adults in their libraries wanted digital services to be easy to use—“seamless,” in the words of one focus group member:
“It has to be easy. It has to be really easy for them or they’re not going to do it. So, making our services as seamless as possible can sometimes be a barrier because you have to work with the company that’s providing the service. You have to work with the publishers. It’s really hard to make it all come together in a seamless way.”
In our national survey of the general public, we asked whether libraries should make various major changes, such as automating most services or moving most services online:
- When we asked Americans whether libraries should move most services online so users can access them without having to visit the library, we found lukewarm support for this idea compared with others we asked about—some 42% of Americans say that libraries should “definitely” do this (including 44% of those under age 30), and another 34% say libraries should “maybe” do this (including 36% of those under age 30).
- We also asked about making most library services automated so people can find what they need and check out material on their own without help from staff. We found that a similar proportion of Americans (41%) say that libraries should “definitely” make most services automated, including 41% of Americans under age 30. Interestingly, these younger respondents were significantly more likely than older adults to be strongly opposed to this idea: 25% of those under age 30 said libraries should “definitely not do” make most library services automated, compared with 18% of those ages 30 and older.
III. Programs and spaces for younger patrons
Libraries as a community space
One strong theme that emerged from our survey findings and in qualitative discussions was the role of the library as a community space. “A warm, welcoming and friendly space is hard to find these days,” one librarian in our online panel wrote, “and the public library has the remarkable opportunity to become a community gathering place in communities where such a space is sorely missing.”
Through our national phone survey, we attempted to quantify Americans’ views on several different roles that libraries may play in their communities:
- About three-quarters (76%) of Americans think it is “very important” to the community for public libraries to provide quiet study spaces for adults and children, including 72% of those under age 30. Adults ages 50-64 are especially likely to say this (81%).22
- Almost six in ten Americans (59%) say that libraries should “definitely” create more comfortable spaces for reading, working, and relaxing at the library, including 64% of those under age 30. Some 49% of those who visited a library in the past 12 months say they visit just to sit, read, and study, or watch or listen to media, including 60% of those under age 30.
- About half (49%) of Americans say it is “very important” to the community for public libraries to provide free public meeting spaces, including 48% of those under age 30. And almost a quarter (23%) of Americans who visited a library in the past 12 months say they visit to attend a meeting of a group to which they belong, including 23% of those under age 30.
- We also asked about whether libraries should help users digitize material such as family photos or historical documents, and found that 43% of Americans think that libraries should “definitely” help patrons digitize material such as family photos or historical documents, including 41% of those under age 30.
The different demands these various type of services might be why a majority (61%) of Americans say that libraries should “definitely” have completely separate locations or spaces for different services, such as children’s services, computer labs, reading spaces, and meeting rooms, including 57% of Americans under age 30.
However, when we asked about how libraries could make space for all these activities, we found that Americans overall are less than enthusiastic about the idea of removing print books from their central place. Just one in five Americans (20%), including 23% of those under age 30, say that libraries should “definitely” move some print books and stacks out of public locations to free up more space for things such as technology centers, reading rooms, meetings rooms, and cultural events. Yet while this idea lacked immediate support among all age groups, those under age 30 were somewhat more open to this idea in general, as they were significantly more likely than older adults to say that libraries should “maybe” do this (47% vs.36%).
Patrons in our focus group often identified children’s areas and teen hangout spaces as especially important to keep separate from the main reading or lounge areas, to keep noise levels and other distractions down to a minimum—and the librarians we spoke with agreed. Having a separate area is “very inviting for teens [because] they don’t have to worry about being very quiet,” one librarian said.
In addition to reducing noise and interruptions for other patrons, many librarians told us that having separate spaces was important to give children and young adults a sense of independence and ownership. One online respondent pointed out that “the public library’s role as ‘third place’ is particularly important for teens, since few noncommercial public spaces welcome and engage teens.”
A library staff member in our online panel wrote:
“Having a separate children’s area or young adults area will cater solely to those groups and make them feel that the library is theirs. They do not have to deal with adults watching them or monitoring what book they pick or what they choose to do—it’s all about them and what they want with no judgment. Children and teens love having their own space so why not give them that at the library?”
Many of the library staff members in our online panel said that their libraries already have separate locations for different services. Those who said their library was not very likely to do this in the future often cited issues of space, or funding; one pointed out that “in small libraries, often operated by a single staff member, separate spaces cannot be for reasons of security or even customer service.”
One potential solution that focus group members discussed was sound-proof teen sections with glass walls, allowing for both supervision and privacy. One librarian described a similar teen section at a nearby library:
“The teens really take ownership of it. From the information desk, a librarian can see in to make sure nothing is going on but it’s still private because it’s more or less sound-proof from the rest [of the library]. They can enjoy their time there. Patrons reading in the magazine room can have their own quiet area. It’s a really nice set-up.”
Programs and classes for children and teens
When it comes to programs and resources for younger patrons:
- Almost three-quarters (74%) of Americans think it is “very important” for public libraries to provide programs and classes for children and teens, including 72% of Americans under age 30.
- Some 47% of Americans (and 53% of those under age 30) say that libraries should “definitely” offer more interactive learning experiences similar to museum exhibits.
- And 41% of those who visited a library in the past 12 months (including 35% of those under age 30) say they visit to attend or bring a younger person to a class, program, or event designed for children or teens.
In focus groups, librarians described their various experiences with teens at their libraries, and emphasized that the situation varies from town to town—and library to library:
“In some of the branches there’s a large teen population that’s going to hang out there anyway. So, it’s providing them with something to do while they’re in there. Some [libraries] are trying to pull [teens] into the branch and some . . . are just trying to deal with the [teens] that they have.”
Another librarian in the focus group had a similar experience:
“I spent most of my first year as a librarian in a very small . . . branch in the county, in a very low income community that desperately needs a library. The kids would come in. A lot of them haven’t stepped foot in the library before and they didn’t know how to behave, what to do, what they could do. There are three hours per day of computer time and then I’ve heard them say, ‘Oh, I’m logged off. There’s nothing else to do. Let’s go home.’ So, our goal in that specific branch was to give them something to do . . . They’re going to hang out there anyway, so, we wanted to keep them occupied, out of trouble, and not disruptive. So, when we started introducing LEGO programs for the tween demographic and board game programs for the older teens, it improved a lot. They would invite their friends. It was more structured and the issues went down significantly after that.”
Another librarian also cited crafts and other activities as ways to bring new teens into library programs, especially when they take place in visible public areas:
“Every quarter we do two or three crafts. Making origami craft, make a CD clock, bracelets. . . . Sometimes we do them right on the public floor so that if we can’t get teens to come down into the meeting room because they’re shy or reluctant, we can maybe get their attention right there on the floor by wearing the bracelet [craft] around and going up to teens and getting them to come over to a table right on the floor.”
Librarians we spoke with mentioned several potential roadblocks in creating teen programs, such as lacking the funds, space, or available and trained staff. In an answer to our online questionnaire, one library staff member wrote that while funding issues existed, “the bigger problem is geographic and transport related. We cannot bring together a critical mass of young people at one time and one place,” although coordinating with the local school’s bus schedules might be a workaround in the future.
Another potential area of change that librarians identified in our qualitative work was the need for programming that would appeal to younger adults. Asked about what libraries need to change, one library staff member wrote: “[There’s] not enough programming for teens and actual young adults; it seems that in the library world the term ‘young adult’ refers to children aged ten to thirteen.” Another librarian agreed: “We should also focus on the ‘lost’ age group of older-than-teens-but-younger-than-baby-boomers for programs.”
Overall, over six in ten Americans (63%), including 64% of those under age 30, say it is “very important” for public libraries to provide free events and activities, such as classes and cultural events, for people of all ages. About one in five (21%) Americans who visited a library in the past 12 months say they visit to attend a class, program, or lecture for adults, including 20% of those under age 30.
However, several librarians and patrons in our focus groups noted that many programs and events for adults are often targeted toward parents with young children. “We need to find a way to get young adults into the library,” one librarian wrote. “I mean the ones who do not have children. There needs to be a reason that a 30 year old goes to the library that is not to drop off their kids to story time. We are missing entire generations until they reach retirement age.”