Released: June 22, 2012

Libraries, patrons, and e-books

Part 3: Library users

By , , , and

Our December 2011 survey showed that 58% of Americans ages 16 and older said they had a library card.

Women, whites, and parents of minor children are more likely to have library cards than other groups, and having a library card is also strongly correlated with educational attainment: 39% of those who have not completed high school have a library card, compared with 72% of those with at least a college degree. Those living in households making less than $30,000 per year and those living in rural areas are less likely than other groups to have a library card, and seniors ages 65 and older are somewhat less likely to have one as well.

These findings are in line with the results of a January 2011 ALA/Harris Interactive poll, which found that 58% of adults ages 18 and older said they had a library card. (Our survey found 57% of those ages 18 and above had a card.34)

Technology users are more likely to have library cards than non-users. For instance, those who use the internet are more likely to have a library card than non-internet users (62% vs. 37%); cell users are more likely to have a library card than non-users (59% vs. 47%); and those who own e-readers (like an original Kindle or NOOK) are more likely to have a library card than non-users (69% vs. 56%). However, tablet owners are no more or less likely to have library cards than non-owners.

How important are libraries?

Beyond the particulars of library card holding, we asked respondents about the role of the local library in their life. Almost seven in ten Americans (69%) say that public libraries are important to them and their family: 38% of Americans ages 16 and older say that the public library is “very important,” and 31% say it is “somewhat important.” Some 17% say it is “not too important,” while 13% say it is “not important at all.”

Many groups that are less likely to have a library card are also more likely to say that the public library is not important to their family, including men (compared with women), those who have not completed high school (compared with those with higher levels of education), rural residents (compared with urban and suburban residents), and people without minor children living at home (compared with parents).

At the same time, minorities are generally more likely to say libraries are important than whites and minorities are notably more likely to say libraries are very important: Some 48% of African-Americans say that and 44% of Hispanics say that, compared with 35% of whites. Though the number of Spanish-speaking respondents was relatively small in the sample (89 cases), they were more likely than English-speakers to say the library was very important to them and their families. Fully half (50%) of parents with minor children say that libraries are very important to them and their families, compared with 35% of non-parents who have that view.

On the other hand, the youngest respondents (those 16-17 years old) were substantially less likely than adults to say that libraries are “very important”—just 13% of this youngest age group say this, compared with over a third (39%) of adults ages 18 and older.

There are others who are particularly likely to say the library is important to them: Those who have listened to an audiobook in the past year are more likely than others to say libraries are very important (49% vs. 39%). Those who read at least monthly for their own pleasure are also more likely to say libraries are very important (41% vs. 29%). And those who read monthly to keep up with current events are more likely to say libraries are very important (39% vs. 33%).

In our survey we asked if respondents had any physical or health conditions that make reading difficult or challenging for them. Some 17% of respondents said they had an issue like that in their lives and those who have health or physical issues that make reading difficult are more likely than others to say the library is very important to them—44% vs. 37%.

Library users are more engaged with all kinds of reading

Those who have library cards and think well of the library’s role in their lives stand out in several ways from others. For starters, they are more likely to say their own quality of life is good or excellent.

When it comes to technology, library card holders are more connected than those who don’t have cards. They are more likely than others to be internet users (88% vs. 73%), more likely to own a cell phone (89% vs. 84%), and more likely to have a desktop or laptop computer (81% vs. 67%). And they are more likely than others to say they plan to purchase an e-reader or a tablet computer.

Library card holders read more books than non-holders. In the 12 months before our December survey, library card holders say they read an average (the mean number) of 20 books, compared with 13 books as the mean number of books read by non-card holders. The median (midpoint) figures for books read were 10 by library card holders and 5 by non-holders.

On any given day, those who have library cards are considerably more likely to be reading a book than non-card holders: In our survey, 53% of card holders said they had read a book “yesterday”—or the day before we reached them to take the survey. Some 31% of non-card holders responded yes to that question.

These library card holders are also more likely than non-card holders to have read a book in the past year in every medium, as shown in the following chart.

When  it comes to people’s different purposes for reading, library card holders are more likely than others to say they read for every reason that we queried in the survey—for pleasure, to keep up with current events, to conduct research on subjects that were personally interesting to them, and for work or school. Card holders are also more likely to read more often for each of those purposes.

When asked what they most like about reading, library card holders are similar to other readers, but they are a somewhat more likely to say they enjoy the escape that reading gives them and chance to use their imaginations.

  1. January 2011 Harris Interactive Poll (PDF) http://www.ala.org/ala/research/librarystats/2011harrispoll.pdf and http://www.ala.org/news/mediapresscenter/americaslibraries/publiclibraries