The digital era has brought profound challenges and opportunities to countless institutions and industries, from universities to newspapers to the music industry, in ways both large and small. Institutions that were previously identified with printed material—and its attendant properties of being expensive, scarce, and obscure—are now considering how to take on new roles as purveyors of information, connections, and entertainment, using the latest formats and technologies.
The impact of digital technologies on public libraries is particularly interesting because libraries serve so many people (about half of all Americans ages 16 and older used a public library in some form in the past year, as of September 2013) and correspondingly try to meet a wide variety of needs.1 This is also what makes the task of public libraries—as well as governments, news organizations, religious groups, schools, and any other institution that is trying to reach a wide swath of the American public—so challenging: They are trying to respond to new technologies while maintaining older strategies of knowledge dissemination.
In recent years, public libraries have continued to add new technologies and formats to their holdings, with the goal of providing patrons resources in whatever form they prefer. Many libraries have also expanded into community centers, serving as unique gathering places in their towns and cities. Today, they offer many events and services, and are experimenting with providing the next generation of “expensive and scarce” resources, from 3-D printers to recording studios.
Work by the Pew Research Center has shown that print books are still central to Americans’ library use, just as they remain central in Americans’ overall reading habits. In fact, though more Americans than ever are reading e-books (28% of adults ages 18 and older, as of January 2014), few have abandoned print entirely; just 4% of readers read e-books exclusively. Still, many Americans say they would be interested in exploring a range of technological services at public libraries, from personalized reading recommendations and online “Ask a Librarian” services to media kiosks and mobile apps.
Libraries loom large in the public imagination, and are generally viewed very positively: 90% of Americans ages 16 and older say that the closing of their local public library would have an impact on their community. This means that many people have a stake in the future of libraries, and as the digital age advances, there is much discussion about where they are headed. To help with that conversation, Pew Research has spent three years charting the present role libraries play in Americans’ lives and communities, in the hopes that this will set the foundation for discussions of what libraries should be in the future. The first stage of our research studied the growing role of e-books, including their impact on Americans’ reading habits and Americans’ library habits. Our second stage explored the full universe of library services, as well as what library services Americans most value and what they might want from libraries in the future. This typology completes our third and final stage of research, which explores public libraries’ roles in people’s lives and in American culture writ large—how they are perceived, how they are valued, how people rely on them, and so forth.2 All of this research and the underlying data sets are available on our website.