February 16, 2018

Public Libraries and Hispanics Pew Report Shows Library Gap Between U.S.-Born and Immigrants

PH_2015-03-17_hispanics-libraries-05The Pew Research Center’s latest report taken from its 2013 Library Services Survey focuses on Public Libraries and Hispanics, examining usage patterns and attitudes among the United States Hispanic population age 16 and older. While the findings identify some differences between Latinos and their White [non-Hispanic] and African American counterparts, the greatest discrepancies lie between native-born Hispanics—those born within the 50 states or Puerto Rico—and immigrants.

Perhaps most notably, non-native Hispanics were far less likely to have ever visited a U.S. public library or bookmobile in person than Latinos born in this country. However, those immigrants who have used the library identified as the most appreciative segment of the surveyed population, consistently rating library services highest of any other group. The report introduces as many questions as it answers. But it could serve as an opportunity for discussion in libraries across the country about how to better serve a rapidly growing Hispanic population—more than 54 million living in the United States today, making up 17 percent of the population.

The data used was taken from research conducted in 2013 as part of the Pew Internet public library research initiative, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. These findings generated a number of reports issued throughout 2014 (see LJ’s September coverage, “Younger Americans and Public Libraries”). Of the 6,224 Americans surveyed, 739 self-identified as Hispanic (the terms Hispanic and Latino are used interchangeably in the report). Mark Hugo Lopez, director of Hispanic research at the Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends Project, told LJ that he and Lee Rainie, the Pew Research Center’s director of Internet, science, and technology research, had discussed pulling the data specifically because “it looked like there were some interesting findings on the Hispanic results—the break between the native born and the foreign born, but also…this interesting finding of [how immigrants] don’t use libraries as much as other Americans do, but on the other hand when they do, they appreciate the services that are offered much more so than U.S.-born Hispanics, whites, or blacks.”


As a whole, 72 percent of the U.S. Hispanic population aged 16 and older said they had visited a public library or bookmobile at some point in their lives. This is slightly below the 83 percent reported by whites and 80 percent by blacks. That statistic diverges widely, however, between U.S.-born Latinos—83 percent of whom said they had visited a library—and non-native individuals, of whom only 60 percent had done so. Only a third of Hispanic immigrants reported that they would find it “very easy” to visit a public library in person, and fewer than a quarter said the same of public library websites.

But non-native Latinos who did make use of public libraries rated the services offered much more highly than any other demographic. “Having a quiet, safe place” to read and work was considered very important by 85 percent of the immigrant Hispanics surveyed, along with free books and media (83 percent); research resources (82 percent); programs for youth (77 percent); and access to the Internet, computers, and printers (68 percent). Not surprisingly, 65 percent of the immigrant respondents rated library programs for adults very important, as opposed to only 29 percent of those who were born domestically.

In a similar vein, 50 percent of non-native Hispanics felt that library closings would have a major impact on their families and 73 percent on their communities. Among U.S. born Hispanics, 29 percent and 58 percent, respectively, felt the same—slightly more than white library users and fewer than black users.

Such levels of loyalty and appreciation did not always translate into consistent use. While roughly the same numbers of U.S.-born Hispanics surveyed said they had a public library card (62 percent) as blacks (64 percent) or whites (63 percent), only 40 percent of non-native Hispanics owned one. And of parents who reported that their children had visited a library or bookmobile in the 12 months prior to the survey, 72 percent of the native-born Hispanics answered in the affirmative, as opposed to 56 percent of the immigrants questioned. Hispanics in both categories were less likely to identify as familiar with library services and programs—62 percent, compared with 71 percent of whites and 74 percent of blacks.

And although approval ratings were high among immigrants, 43 percent of non-native Latinos said they “strongly agree” that public libraries are not as necessary as they used to be. Only 27 percent of native-born Hispanics said the same.


Certainly many of these differences reflect language barrier issues—according to the Pew Research Center’s 2014 National Survey of Latinos, 57 percent of immigrant adults are Spanish-dominant, 38 percent are bilingual, and only 6 percent are English-dominant. “The survey didn’t give us a chance to look at…the offering of Spanish-language books or other kinds of media” that public libraries provided to their Spanish-speaking constituents, said Lopez told LJ. “This is something that I would want to make an important part of any future research program, because language ability is going to be an important explanatory factor in describing both the attitudes Latinos have about libraries and whether or not they use them, whether or not they know where they are. I think all of that is going to be important in explaining some of these differences.”

There are also deeply ingrained cultural factors influencing the data, said Carmen Patlan, community engagement manager at Waukegan Public Library (WPL), IL, and a 2014 LJ Mover & Shaker. Her Library Ambassadors outreach program—Las Promotoras de la Biblioteca—enlists Hispanic volunteers to reach out to members of their community to offer information about library services. Much of its success, she explained, lies in understanding the context in which non-native Latinos view libraries.

Patlan, who immigrated as a young girl, told LJ, “Libraries as we know them here do not exist…in Latin American countries, and in particular in Mexico. Especially if you were from a rural part of Mexico or a rural part of Central America, there really are no libraries. Foreign-born individuals are less likely to seek out…the library as a resource because they don’t know about it.”

When she conducted a study among Latinos in Mexico, Patlan found that “99 percent of them viewed the library as a place for academics, a place with lots of rules that really wasn’t relevant to their needs because it was for the well-off…. The majority of these individuals sought their books from a bookstore.”

As for the perception among immigrants that libraries are not as necessary as they once were, Patlan suggested that this could be due to lack of direct exposure: “You’re not going to put that emphasis and value on it because you haven’t been impacted by it directly.”


The survey has the potential to open up a number of subjects for public libraries interested in reaching out to their Hispanic constituents. One issue, suggested Lopez, is that “more than 20 percent of immigrant Latinos say they don’t know where their local library is, and that’s a share that’s higher than what you see for any other group of Americans…. So certainly outreach that’s focused on letting people know that there are public libraries available nearby is an important way to get many immigrant Latinos at least aware of where they are.”

He also noted that libraries should consider the availability of Spanish-language materials. “The foreign-born…may not be able to take advantage of the services at libraries if there isn’t much offered in Spanish and they’re not able to communicate effectively, or well enough in English, to take advantage of those services.”

Patlan suggested that the study could also be used as a diagnostic tool. “I think it could be instrumental specifically for libraries that are trying to figure out why individuals don’t come,” she said, adding that she would like to see some cultural context accompanying the numbers. “If the study had gone a little [further] to say that in Latin American countries the library system as it exists here does not exist there, that might have helped.” Such explanation could be beneficial, she told LJ, “for an organization that doesn’t have Latinos on staff but wants to be able to engage that audience.”

Whatever the discussions engendered by the survey, however, they will be happening more often as the U.S. Latino community continues to expand. “You’re seeing it around the country, simply because of the growth of the immigrant population of Hispanics,” said Lopez. “It’s not just a Los Angeles, Miami, New York phenomenon—now we’re talking about places like Minneapolis and rural Oregon, Nebraska, Iowa.”

Libraries need to keep the conversation going, Patlan agreed, if they are going to provide the needed outreach to serve Latino patrons. “A lot of our community members are in survival mode,” she said. “They don’t recognize their own barriers.”

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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