March 17, 2018

Libraries Still Inspire Positive Views, But See Shift to Online from In-Person Use

Fifty-four percent of Americans visited a library in person or used a public library’s website at least once during the past 12 months, and 70 percent of parents have taken their child to a public library or bookmobile during the past year, according to “How Americans Value Public Libraries in Their Communities,” a report released today by the Pew Research Center. The nationally representative survey of 6,224 Americans 16 and older indicated that the overwhelming majority of Americans continue to have a positive view of libraries, although many are not aware of all of the services and resources that their libraries offer.

While library website use rose, self-reported in-person visits slipped. Thirty percent of Americans have visited a library website or online library resource during the past 12 months, up from 25 percent in a 2012 Pew survey. By contrast, 48 percent said they had made an in-person visit to a library during the past year, down from 53 percent in 2012. Overall, 86% of Americans over the age of 16 reported using a library or library website at some point in their lives. When asked how their library use had changed during the past five years, 16 percent of respondents who had used libraries said their usage had increased, 57 percent said their usage had stayed the same, and 25 percent said their use of their library had declined. The remaining 14 percent said that they had not used their library.

“Throughout our work, we’ve found that Americans value public libraries not only for the access to information they offer through books, databases, and internet connections, but also their assistance in finding and navigating the increasing amount of information that is available,” Kathryn Zickuhr, Research Associate at the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project and lead author of the report, wrote in a summary. “And even people who don’t rely on public libraries as much in their own lives say they value libraries as important resources for the community at large.”

Ninety-four percent of Americans said that the presence of a public library improves the quality of life in a community, while 95 percent said that the resources available at public libraries “play an important role in giving everyone a chance to succeed.” Ninety-four percent said that “public libraries are welcoming, friendly places,” and 91 percent said that they had never had a negative experience using a public library, whether in person or online. Meanwhile, 67 percent said that they would be personally impacted if their local library closed, including 29 percent who said a library closing would have a “major impact.”


Public libraries still have work to do raising awareness of the services they offer. When asked specifically about library programs, 20 percent of respondents said they didn’t know much about what the library offered, and an additional 10 percent said they knew “nothing at all” about library services and programs. Fortunately, almost half (47 percent) felt that they were familiar with some of their library’s services and programs, while 23 percent claimed to know “all or most” of what their library has to offer.

When viewed in conjunction with the rave reviews, these low awareness responses should give libraries pause, noted Gary Price, library consultant and editor of LJ infoDOCKET, and If people are just viewing libraries in the same positive light as broad, general concepts like “education” then low awareness is still a problem.

“If people were aware of what libraries have to offer, across the board, I think things would be a lot different … you can’t really value or appreciate what you don’t know about,” Price said. As an abstract concept, most people are going to agree that libraries are a positive influence on a community. “As a community center, or … as a representative of freedom of speech or freedom of information, I think that’s a huge reason why those numbers are so high,” he said.

With regard to rising library website usage, Price suggested that libraries take stock in the online resources that they have invested in, and make them easier to discover when patrons visit. Libraries spend a lot of money licensing content, and on many library websites, those resources can be difficult to find. “And I know it exists. How about people that don’t know it exists?” Price said. “That’s another inherent problem … If you don’t start marketing and letting people know what libraries have to offer, they are going to continue to drift away to other services and resources.”

Views on the library’s purpose remained traditional. Eighty-one percent of self-described library users said that access to books and media is an important or very important library service, followed closely by librarian assistance (76 percent), and offering a quiet, safe public place (75 percent). These were followed by research resources (72 percent), programs for youth (69 percent), access to Internet, computers, and printers (58 percent), programs for adults (58 percent), help applying for government services (53 percent), and help applying for jobs (51 percent).

More than half (52 percent) of respondents said that people don’t need libraries as much as they used to, because they can find most information on their own—presumably on the Internet. And more than a third (34 percent) complained that public libraries have not done a good job keeping pace with new technology; 55 percent disagreed with that assessment.

Although low-income respondents with household incomes less than $30,000 were slightly less likely than higher-income groups to have used their public library in the past 12 months, they were most likely to describe continued access to library resources as “very important.” This was also true for patrons who were looking for a job, or who lacked Internet access at home. Fifty-six percent of respondents with without home Internet access said that their library’s technological resources are “very important,” compared with 33 percent of total respondents, according to the report. And, 49 percent of unemployed or retired respondents said that librarian assistance is “very important” compared with 41 percent of employed respondents.


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Matt Enis (; @matthewenis on Twitter) is Senior Editor, Technology for Library Journal.