Libraries have been in flux since the dawn of the digital age. They face changes in the materials they provide, in use of their services, in the composition of their patron populations, and in demands for new services. It is a set of disruptions as far-reaching and disorienting as the changes that are occurring in the news media as the nature of news is redefined and its distribution mechanisms are revolutionized.
Pew Research Center has been tracking these changes through surveys, especially in library usage patterns, since 2011.
The 2016 survey shows that, within the context of evolving library usage patterns, public attitudes are largely positive about the library’s role in communities. Many Americans are interested in libraries offering a range of services – including those that help people improve their digital skills and learn how to determine what information is trustworthy. People think that libraries are a major contributor to their communities in providing a safe place to spend time, creating educational opportunities for people of all ages, and sparking creativity among young people.
Overall, a large majority of Americans age 16 and older (77%) think libraries provide them with the resources they need. This is especially true for young people: 84% of those between the ages of 16 and 29 say this.
Similarly, two-thirds (66%) say that if their local public libraries were closed it would have a major impact on their communities as a whole. On this question, there are several notable demographic differences. Among those most likely to say that a library closing would have a major impact on their communities: women (74%); those between the ages of 50 and 64 (73%); and college graduates (71%). Those least likely to report that a library closing would have any kind of impact on their communities: those without high school degrees (15% say a local library closing would have no impact on their communities); non-internet users (15%); and those in households earning less than $30,000 (10%).
Thinking about the impact of a library’s closing specifically on them and their families, the perceived impacts are more muted. Some 33% say that a library closing would have a major impact on them or their families, and this feeling is especially prominent among Latinos (48% believe that their libraries closing would have a major impact on their families); 50- to 64-year-olds (42%); those with annual household incomes of $30,000 or less (41%); and women (39%). Those least likely to report that a library closing would have any kind of impact on them and their families: men (37% say this would have no impact on them and their families); those ages 18 to 29 (39%); those without high school degrees (40%); and those without minor children (36%).
People generally say that libraries contribute, to some extent at least, to their communities in a variety of ways. Of particular note is the role libraries play in helping people decide what information they can trust. There was a large increase in people saying libraries help “a lot” in deciding what information they can trust from 2015, when the figure stood at 24%, to 2016, where it now stands at 37%.
Opportunity is also a notion that comes to people’s mind in thinking about libraries – whether that means a safe place to spend time, a place to pursue educational opportunity, or a place where creative juices flow. Those ages 16 and older were asked to consider how much their local public libraries contribute to their communities:
- 69% say their local libraries contribute “a lot” to providing a safe place for people to spend time.
- 58% think they contribute “a lot” toward creating educational opportunities for people of all ages.
- 49% believe they contribute “a lot” to sparking creativity among young people.
- 47% agree libraries contribute “a lot” to providing a trusted place for people to learn about new technologies.
- 38% say they contribute “a lot” to promoting a sense of community among different groups within their local areas.
- 37% believe they contribute “a lot” to helping people decide what information they can trust.
- 33% assert they contribute “a lot” to helping people when they seek health information.
- 29% believe they contribute “a lot” to serving as a gathering place for addressing challenges in their communities.
- 22% say they contribute “a lot” to helping people find jobs or pursue job training.
- 19% think they contribute “a lot” when natural disasters or major problems strike their communities.
Women are more likely than men to think that libraries make several of these contributions to their communities, including providing a safe place (74% of women say libraries help do this “a lot” vs. 65% of men), providing a trusted place for helping people learn about new technologies (52% vs. 42%) and helping people decide what information they can trust (41% vs. 32%). These gender differences might result from the fact that women are more likely than men to have used libraries in the past year.
When asked to think about how libraries might change to better serve the public, Americans have a pretty clear message: help people learn digital skills without neglecting traditional functions. Specifically:
- 80% of those ages 16 and older say libraries should “definitely” offer programs to teach people, including kids and senior citizens, how to use digital tools like computers and smartphones. This is a similar pattern captured in a 2015 survey.
- 57% think libraries should “definitely” have more comfortable spaces for reading and working. This is down slightly from the 64% who said this in 2015.
- 50% believe libraries should “definitely” buy 3-D printers and other digital tools to allow people to use them. This compares with 45% who said this in 2015.
- 24% say libraries should “definitely” move some print books and stacks out of public locations in order to free up more space for such things as tech centers, reading rooms and meeting rooms. This is a decrease from the 30% who said this in 2015.
Blacks and Hispanics are more likely than whites to say that libraries should definitely undertake several of these acts. For instance, 69% of blacks and 68% of Hispanics think libraries should provide more comfortable spaces for working and reading, while 51% of whites say that the same. Additionally, 69% of blacks and 63% of Hispanics say libraries should definitely buy 3-D printers and other high-tech tools, compared with 44% of whites. And 37% of blacks and 34% of Hispanics say libraries should definitely move books and stacks to provide other kinds of working spaces, while only 18% of whites think that.