March 17, 2018

Quantifying the Continued Relevance of America’s Public Libraries | Advocate’s Corner

Jeffrey W. Smith

Jeffrey W. Smith

One of the most challenging tasks for grassroots advocacy is in finding data to justify the relative importance of the cause one seeks to promote. In speaking with federal, state, and local legislators about a wide array of good causes, invariably the elected official will ask something like this: “how do I know that folks living in my area actually care about … [insert name of cause here].” Thankfully, for library advocates, a wonderful source of data measures is available to help quantify the actual degree to which the public at-large truly values public libraries.

The nationally-regarded Pew Research Center recently released a comprehensive survey entitled “How Americans Value Public Libraries in Their Communities.” Running from July until October 2013, a total of 6,224 individuals aged 16 or older were asked to share their thoughts about local public libraries. People included in this nationally representative sampling were asked a series of questions related to both their awareness and usage of local public libraries. Questions included queries such as:

  • How often do you visit public libraries or bookmobiles in person?
  • Approximately how many miles from your home is the closest public library?
  • What is the relative importance to you and your family of certain library services (like access to books, resources for research, programs and events, etc.)
  • If your local public library closed, would that have a major impact, minor impact, or no impact on your community as a whole?

In assessing the responses from this pool of typical Americans, some truly astounding statistics emerged. There was near universal acceptance of the broad relevance and essential nature of public libraries. For instance, a full 95 percent of survey respondents felt that “the materials and resources available at public libraries play an important role in giving everyone a chance to succeed.” The same percentage of individuals indicated that “public libraries are important because they promote literacy and a love of reading.” Intriguingly, even as many question the continued relevance of public libraries in this age of ebooks and other non-traditional information sources, 94 percent of those questioned felt that “public libraries provide many services people would have a hard time finding elsewhere.”

The real take-away for me from these emphatic statements of support is that the American people still view public libraries as important public benefits within their home communities. Elected decision-makers absolutely must be made aware of these sentiments, given the host of competing funding priorities that they must juggle at budget time. Being able to share these sorts of dramatic data points—coupled with usage statistics and the number of library card holders for an advocate’s home public library system—would certainly help to illustrate why libraries deserve continued robust funding from governmental sources.

According to the Pew study, just over half (54 percent) of Americans ages 16 and older used a public library in some manner during the preceding 12 months, whether by visiting in person or through using a public library website. I can see these high usages statistics reflected in the continued growth in the number of both in-person visits and in the number of items check out for my home library system over the last several years. For the fiscal year-ended June 30, 3013, the Baltimore County (MD) Public Library had over 4.6 million in-person visits, and checked out nearly 10.7 million individual items. Even as the range of offerings within the library system’s collection has evolved over time, the use of its resources by the public at-large had continued on an upward trajectory.

A couple of final data points uncovered by the Pew researchers do a good job of illustrating the personal connection that public library advocates know exists between the libraries themselves and the people they serve. About 90 percent of survey respondents noted that “the closing of their local public library would have an impact on their community, with 63 percent saying it would have a “major” impact.” Of note, a full two-thirds (67 percent) of respondents indicated that the closing of their local public library would “personally” affect them and their families, including 29 percent who said it would have a major impact. Numbers like these do a far greater job in putting into perspective the relative value of public libraries. Now, the real trick will be for grassroots library advocates to deliver this message to key decision-makers—at all levels.

Jeffrey Smith About Jeffrey Smith

Jeffrey Smith is President of the Foundation for the Baltimore County Public Library (BCPL), as well as a member of the BCPL Board of Library Trustees, and board member of Citizens for Maryland Libraries. As a professional lobbyist for both public and private sector organizations, Smith has conducted successful legislative advocacy efforts through direct interaction with government officials at the federal, state, and local levels.



  1. I agree, there are some stats from this Pew report that will surprise the public. They are wonderful tools, but only if we actually use them. Sharing these with stakeholders, as you mention, is essential. I wrote a post about doing just that, with some suggestions for spreading the word.

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