February 4, 2014

Pew collects data on American libraries


In late January, the Pew Research Center aggregated a list of “10 facts about Americans and public libraries,” a collection of data from surveys administered over the past year.

The numbers, self-reported by American adults, are encouraging. E-book use has grown: 28% of adults reported reading an ebook over the past year, up from 17% in 2011. (Only 4% of those readers reported using only e-books.) Use of print books, though, has hardly fallen—69% of us read one in the past year (following 65% and 71% in 2012 and 2011). Regardless of format, 76% of those surveyed had read at least one book in the previous year.

Despite a common fear that public libraries are slowly becoming less relevant, the data collected show that many people’s lives are still impacted — whether directly or as a community — by libraries. (Pew’s survey information about libraries does not, unfortunately, display comparisons with previous years’ surveys.) 90% of Americans 16 and up believed that the closing of their local library would impact the community, with 63% estimating that the impact would be “major.” Fewer of those surveyed foresaw an impact on their own family, but the number still comes out at 67%.

It’s not only about books and media, though 80% of those who use public libraries reported that no-cost access to these resources were “very” or “somewhat” important to their families. Americans also value librarian assistance (76%), “having a safe, quiet place” (75%), and access to research resources (72%). Rounding out the list are youth and adult programs; internet, computer, and printer access; and help applying for jobs and government services.

Americans’ appreciation for libraries also includes constructive suggestions for their development. Improvements in accessibility, though indicated by increased use of library websites (up 5 points since 2012), are still necessary. Americans ages 16-29 expressed a strong interest in apps helping them to find library materials, as well as Redbox-like kiosks placed throughout their community. In addition, Americans 16 and older believed that libraries should place greater focus on coordinating with local schools, creating no-cost literacy programs, and offering e-books.

Though 22% of American library patrons report using their local libraries less over the past 5 years, 26% say they have used them more. As with everything else, library use ebbs and flows, but Pew’s findings indicate that libraries are still going strong. (Additionally, they could have just tried to park at my local library on a Sunday afternoon.)

Pew plans to issue additional data about library users and non-users, including detailed information about habits and demographics, for the PLA Conference in March.


Emma Aylor is a former Melville House intern.