Libraries are in great flux as information is shifting from the analog age to the digital age, as people’s need to acquire knowledge shifts, and as Americans’ interests in personal enrichment and entertainment are reshaped.
The findings from a new survey by Pew Research Center highlight how this is a crossroads moment for libraries. The data paint a complex portrait of disruption and aspiration. There are relatively active constituents who hope libraries will maintain valuable legacy functions such as lending printed books. At the same time, there are those who support the idea that libraries should adapt to a world where more and more information lives in digital form, accessible anytime and anywhere.
Despite the ferment, Americans remain steady in their beliefs that libraries are important to their community, their family and themselves. Two-thirds (65%) of all of those 16 and older say that closing their local public library would have a major impact on their community, similar to the 63% figure recorded in 2013. One-third (32%) say closing their local public library would have a major impact on them or their family – roughly the same as the 29% who said this in 2013.
Concerns about libraries closing do not fall evenly across different segments of Americans. Hispanics, women, parents of minor children and older adults are more likely to say that closing their local public library would have a major impact on their community than others. Compared with the 65% figure for all of those ages 16 and older:
- 78% of Hispanics say closing the library would have a major impact on their community.
- 72% of women say this, compared with 58% of men.
- 70% of parents of minors assert that a library closure would have a major impact.
- 70% of those ages 50 and older say closing the library would have a major impact.
When asked to think about how the closure would affect themselves or their families, the patterns are similar to assessments about community impacts. Hispanics, parents and women are more likely to say that closing their local public library would have a major impact on them or their family, as are low-income households.
- 49% of Hispanics say closing the library would have a major impact on them or their family.
- 39% of parents of minor children say this.
- 39% of women (vs. 25% of men) say closing the library would have a major impact on them and their family.
- 37% of those living in homes with annual incomes of $30,000 or less say the possibility of closing their local public library would have a major impact.
Library users are evident throughout the population
In 2015, 46% of all those ages 16 or older had visited a public library or bookmobile in person during the previous 12 months. This is essentially unchanged since 2013, when 48% said this, but does represent a decline from the 53% of Americans who in 2012 had paid an in-person visit to a public library in the prior year. In the current survey, majorities of women, younger Americans, college graduates and lower- to middle-income Americans have visited a library in the past year:
- 56% of college graduates paid an in-person visit to a library or bookmobile.
- 52% of those between the ages of 16 and 29 did this.
- 52% of those whose annual household income is between $30,000 and $50,000 went to a library in-person or visited a bookmobile.
A few things stand out in these data comparing 2015 to 2012. In particular, those on the lower end of the socio-economic stratum – those with less education and household income – have reported larger-than-average declines in library use. Rural Americans and African Americans also have experienced greater declines, as have parents.
As to frequency of library use, among those who had visited a public library in the past year, 56% had done so once a month or more in 2015, with 14% doing so several times a month and 14% visiting on weekly basis. In September 2013, 57% of library users say they went to the public library once a month or more; the comparable figure for 2012 was somewhat higher at 62%.
The most frequent library visitors among library users are Hispanics: 21% say they go to the public library at least once a week, compared with the 14% figure for all respondents.
Who uses library websites
Overall, 22% of those ages 16 and older visited a library website or used a library mobile app in the previous 12 months. That is down somewhat from the 25% who had visited public library websites in the previous 12 months in 2012, and is a drop from the 30% who had visited a library website when we asked in September 2013. Some of the change might have resulted from a modification in the wording of our question.1
Younger and higher educated people are more likely to use libraries virtually (via a website or an app), with 28% of those between the ages of 16 and 29 having used a public library website in the prior year and 34% of those with a college degree having done this.
Between use of library websites and in-person visits to libraries or bookmobiles, half (49%) of all Americans ages 16 or older have had been library users of some sort in the past 12 months. Additionally, four-out-of-five Americans (83%) say they have used the library at some point whether in the past 12 months or longer ago than that.
Awareness of e-book lending by libraries is growing: 6% have borrowed an e-book
People are increasingly aware that they can borrow e-books at their public library. Some 38% say their public library has e-books, compared with 31% who said this in 2012. Those more likely to be aware that their library has e-books are college graduates (52% say they are aware of e-book lending), parents (44%) and those in homes where the annual income is over $75,000 (44%).
It is still the case, though, that almost half of Americans ages 16 and over (46%) do not know if their local library lends e-books. At least 90% of public libraries have e-book lending programs, according to the American Library Association. Those between the ages of 50 and 64 and those with lower levels of educational attainment are a bit more likely to be unaware of e-books for loan.
Some 16% of those who are aware their library lends e-books have downloaded an e-book from their public library – that amounts to 6% of all those ages 16 and older who have borrowed an e-book from their library.
What people do at libraries
- 66% of those who visited a library in the past 12 months say they borrowed print books, compared with 73% who did in 2012.
- 42% of recent library users have asked the librarian for help, down from 50% in 2012.
At the same time, the number of library users who value the library as a place to simply sit and read, study or access media has increased a little. Some 53% of those who used a library in the past 12 months used it as a reading or studying locale, up from 49% who said this in 2012.
Some 16% of library users in the past year have attended a meeting there, down somewhat from 23% who did this in 2012.
Borrowing printed books is more likely to be the province of the well-off and well-educated: 80% of the library-using college graduates and 76% of those in homes with annual incomes over $75,000 say they did this in the prior year. These figures are well above the 66% result for all Americans ages 16 and older who used a library in the past 12 months. African Americans (50%) and Hispanics (58%) are somewhat less ardent book borrowers.
Getting help from a librarian, by contrast, is something for which the library users with lower household incomes and African Americans are more likely to do. Some 52% of African Americans and 49% of those in homes with annual incomes below $30,000 have done this, compared with 42% of the general library-user population.
And using the library as a place to sit, read, study, or watch or listen to media is something library users who are young, Hispanic and lower-income Americans do more often. Compared with the 53% overall figure for library users, 73% of those in the 16 to 29 age group, 67% of Hispanics and 64% of those whose annual incomes are under $30,000 have done this.
Computers and internet access at libraries are particularly used by African Americans, Hispanics and those in lower-income households
Use of computers, the internet or Wi-Fi connections at libraries is also down slightly since 2012. Among those who have visited a public library in the past 12 months, 27% say they used a computer, internet connection or Wi-Fi there. This compares with the 31% figure recorded in November 2012. As with some other metrics of library use, lower income and minorities are more active in using this type of library resource. The library users who are more likely to have used library technology include:
- 38% of African Americans who have used the library in the last 12 months have used the computers, the internet or Wi-Fi there
- 32% of Hispanics have used library computers, the internet or WiFi
- 31% of those living in homes whose annual incomes are $30,000 or less have used these online resources at the library.
Among those who have used computers, the internet or Wi-Fi at libraries, there are generally modest changes in online use compared with library users in 2012. Doing research for school or work is the most popular activity, with 60% of library technology users doing this in 2015, while 58% check or send texts or emails. Incidences of research at the library using computers, the internet or Wi-Fi is down from 2012, while texting or emailing has increased. As noted, job search is down substantially – 13 percentage points – since 2012, perhaps because of the improvement in the job market in the United States since then.
The Pew Research survey this year also explored Wi-Fi use at libraries. Some 6% of those ages 16+ who visited a library in the past year also took advantage of the library’s Wi-Fi when the library was closed.
How people use library websites
Over the past several years, people’s use of library websites for specific purposes has, in some cases, dropped.
Use of electronic resources within libraries’ store of online content has decreased sharply, with incidences of searching library catalogues online and using electronic databases down by over 10 percentage points since 2012 in each case. Using the library’s website to renew books is also down. Other changes from 2012 are more modest, and the differences across samples are not statistically significant.
A portion of people also use the library as a “how to” resource for digital applications that they feel the need to explore. For visitors to public libraries or users of a library’s website or mobile app in the past 12 months:
- 14% used library resources to learn how to download and use e-books or other digital content.
- 10% used public library resources to learn how to use apps on smartphones or tablets.
- 9% sought help from public library resources to figure out how to use social networking applications such as Facebook or LinkedIn.
- 8% turned to help available through the library to learn how to create digital audio or music.
- 6% undertook a similar strategy using library resources for learning how to create video.
- 6% turned to the library or its digital assets to learn how to create software or write computer code for websites, games or apps.
How libraries contribute to communities
Majorities of Americans, as noted, feel that closing their local public library would have a major impact on their community. The other side of that coin is how people see libraries helping their community in specific ways. For the most part, strong majorities of Americans ages 16 and over say that public libraries help at least somewhat in areas such as acquiring health care information or learning about new technologies.
For seeking health care information and learning new technologies, nearly three quarters of those ages 16 and over think libraries help in these areas. Women, older adults (ages 65 and over) and Hispanics are particularly likely to think libraries help “a lot” in both areas. With respect to learning about health care information, 43% of those ages 65 and older say libraries help “a lot” and 44% of those whose annual household income is $30,000 or below also think this. Some 42% of Hispanics and older adults say libraries help people learn new technologies a lot, as do 38% of those whose income falls below $30,000 annually.
When it comes to community purposes, Hispanics are especially likely to see libraries helping a lot with learning information on community events and volunteer opportunities. 43% of Hispanics say libraries help a lot in communicating information about community events and other resources, and 41% say that about libraries helping convey information about volunteer opportunities. Hispanics are also more likely to say libraries help “a lot” in how people decide what information to trust; 33% say that vs. 24% of all respondents.
Finally, when thinking about libraries’ role in helping people find a job or pursue job training, Hispanics, African Americans and low-income Americans are especially likely to say that libraries help a lot. Compared with the 19% of all those ages 16 and older who say libraries help “a lot” with job search or workforce skills:
- 34% of Hispanics say this;
- 26% of those who live in households with annual incomes under $30,000 say this, and;
- 28% of African Americans say libraries help “a lot” in the job search and workforce skills arena.