Released: June 22, 2012

Libraries, patrons, and e-books

Part 4: How people used the library in the past year

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We asked respondents if they had used the library in the past year for a variety of purposes, including research, book-borrowing, and periodicals like newspapers and magazines. Some 56% of those ages 16 and older said that they had used a public library at least once in the past year for one of the activities we queried:

Looking at the people who use the library for any purpose in the past year, several trends stood out. Those 65 and older are the least likely to have used a library in the past 12 months, while those ages 16-17, virtually all of whom are still students, are by far the most likely ages group to have visited a library, especially for research purposes. Additionally, 16-17 year-olds (as well as 30-49 year-olds) are more likely than others to have used the library to borrow books in the past year.

Women are more likely than men to have used a library, especially for borrowing books (42% vs. 28%). Hispanics are less likely than whites or African-Americans to have used a library in the previous year, and African-Americans are more likely than others to use a library for research.  Those with at least some college experience are more likely than those who had not attended college to use the library for any reason.  Those in higher income brackets are generally more likely to have used a library to borrow books, and parents are more likely to borrow books than non-parents. Overall, we find that 40% of those ages 16 and older had used a library in the past year for research, and 36% had used a library to borrow books. Some 22% borrowed periodicals like newspapers and magazines, or journals.

These findings are similar to the results to a January 2011 ALA/Harris Interactive poll, in which 65% of respondents said they had visited the library in the past year. The poll also found that women are significantly more likely than men (72% vs. 58%) to have visited a library in the past year, “especially working women, working mothers and women aged 18-54.”1

It is important to note that we asked no questions about technology use at libraries because that was outside the scope of this research. Other studies by Pew Internet and others has documented that library patrons are often eager users of computers and internet connections at local libraries.2 Thus, it is likely that a number of additional Americans use their libraries for access to technology and the overall number of “library users” is greater than 56%. Indeed, we heard repeatedly from librarians who responded to our online canvassing that technology use and technology support is a major aspect of their work with patrons. There is more commentary from librarians on this topic in Part 8 of this report.

Book-borrowing patterns

Print books

Of all the readers we surveyed in December 2011, print readers were the most likely to have borrowed that format of book from the library: Among those who had read a print book in the past year, almost half (48%) borrowed a print book from the library in the same timeframe. This works out to 34% of all those ages 16 and older.

Overall, women who read print books were significantly more likely to have borrowed a printed book from a library that men who read print books (54% vs. 41%).  Those ages 16-17 who had read a printed book in the past year were the most likely to have borrowed a print book from their public library in that time, with 65% having done so. Adults ages 30-49 are the next likely group to check out print books (53% had done so). However, those older readers are somewhat more likely to be frequent borrowers, while 16-17 year olds are more likely to have borrowed print books five times or less. Parents are also more likely to check out print books than non-parents. The print book readers who have college degrees or live in households earning more than $75,000 were also more likely than others to have borrowed a printed book from a library and they went to the library more times than other book readers to borrow a book.

When it comes to technology, print book readers who use technology are more likely than others to have borrowed a print book from the library. Fully 50% of the internet users who read a print book in the past year borrowed a printed book in the same period, compared with 32% of non-internet users. Also, those who own e-readers were also more likely than non-owners to have borrowed a printed book from the library in the past year.

Audiobook borrowers

Among those who had listened to an audiobook in the year prior to the survey, 38% used a public library to borrow audiobooks. This works out to 4% of all those 16 and older. About half of these audiobook borrowers had done so five or fewer times.

Though the sample size for audiobook borrowers from libraries is too small to do detailed statistical analysis of subgroups, such borrowers are more likely to be female than male and most likely to be white, college educated, and over the ages 30 or older. They are also more likely to be heavier readers.

E-book borrowers

E-book readers were the least likely to have borrowed that format from the library. As of December 2011, 12% of those who read e-books had borrowed or downloaded one from a public library in the year prior to the survey. This works out to 2% of all those 16 and older. About half of these e-book borrowers had borrowed an e-book five or fewer times in the past 12 months.

The sample size for e-book borrowers from libraries is too small to do detailed statistical analysis of subgroups, although our available data suggests some trends. For instance, borrowers of e-books from libraries at the moment seem to be relatively equally diverse in their demographic profile. Those with college degrees who generally read e-books are a bit more likely than others to have borrowed an e-book from a library.

E-book borrowers are also quite attached to their libraries, saying they are very important to them and their families and especially likely to say that they look first for e-books at their library. They also skew toward those who generally read heavily. E-book borrowers say they read an average (the mean number) of 29 books in the past year, compared with 23 books for readers who do not borrow e-books from a library. Perhaps more striking, the median (midpoint) figures for books reportedly read are 20 in the past year by e-book borrowers and 12 by non-borrowers.

(Note: You can read more about e-book readers who do not check out e-books from the public library in Part 7 of this report.)

Using the library for research

Research resources and periodicals

We also asked about whether respondents used various library resources, such as specialized databases or periodicals. Notable numbers of library patrons were performing these research activities. At the same time, very little of the research was accessed or used on e-readers or tablet computers. Some of the main findings include:

African-Americans are generally more likely than other ethnic groups to make use of these services at libraries, especially accessing newspapers or news articles and accessing specialized databases such as legal or public records. Those with at least some college experience are also generally more likely to use these services than those with lower levels of education, and those with the lowest household incomes are generally more likely to use these services than those with the highest household incomes. The main exception to this trend was accessing or borrowing magazines or journals, which was more popular with African-Americans than with whites and more popular with 18-29 year-olds than those ages 30-49 and 50-64.

Get research help from a librarian

One in five people ages 16 and older (20%) has used a public library to get research assistance from a librarian in the past twelve months. Easily the most active group was 16-17 year-olds, 43% of whom have gotten research help from a librarian in the past year—significantly more than any other age group. Although the sample size of teen library users is too small for detailed analysis, in general the 16-17 year olds who went to the library for research assistance in the past year tended to do so five times or less. (Adults ages 65 and older are also less likely than other age groups to get research help at a library.)

African-Americans are also more likely than whites or Hispanics to go to the library for research assistance from a librarian. Finally, those with at least some college and those in households making less than $30,000 per year are also relatively more likely than other groups to use libraries’ research services.

It is also worth noting that internet users are more likely than non-users to have gone to the library in the past year and gotten help from a librarian: 22% of internet users have done that, compared with 12% of non-users. And, as a rule, the more intense a person was as a book reader, the more likely it was that she had sought reference help from a librarian. On the other hand, those who asked to take our survey in Spanish were considerably less likely than others to have been to have gotten help from a librarian.

Many librarians from our online panel report seeing a dramatic decrease in use of traditional reference services. “Short answer reference questions have been replaced by Google,” one library director told us. Another librarian said, “The main thing that’s changed in the last decade or two is how patrons access research materials. Instead of print indexes or even online databases, many people just Google everything and if they find something ‘good enough,’ they don’t come to or contact the library for help.”

These responses echo the findings of OCLC’s 2010 report, which found that 28% of library users asked for research assistance at the library in 2010, down from 39% in 2005.3 While half of the respondents in that survey said that the top purpose of the library was to “provide information,” the report found that search engines are the starting point of information queries for 84% of respondents and none started at a library website. However, the report also found that among Americans who have used a librarian in a research query, 83% agree librarians add value to the search process.

While many librarians reported a decrease in traditional reference services, they said that patrons are requesting information in other ways. They might see an uptick in use of IM reference, or steady use of a specialized resource (such as having a medical librarian on staff). “When asked, reference queries tend to require more in-depth research skills (e.g., knowledge of USPTO patent searching, Census databases, etc.),” one librarian said.

A common theme was the increasing “self-reliance” of patrons. “Even in the last couple years, patrons are more willing to use databases to find articles and are better able to understand that ProQuest or other databases with journals are different than the open web,” a librarian respondent wrote. “Combine that with the uptick in genealogy users, and we are using our databases much more.”

These thoughts might tie to the transition librarians are seeing as patrons request more technology help and less help finding books. Perhaps, some suggested, this shift might indicate change in knowledge acquisition strategies – less built on books and more built on technologically-enabled access to digital content.

  1. numoffset=”35″ January 2011 Harris Interactive Poll (PDF) http://www.ala.org/ala/research/librarystats/2011harrispoll.pdf
  2. See, for instance, “Information Searches that Solve Problems” available at: http://libraries.pewinternet.org/2007/12/30/information-searches-that-solve-problems/ and “Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries” available at: http://impact.ischool.washington.edu/documents/OPP4ALL_FinalReport.pdf and Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study (2011-2012): http://www.ala.org/research/initiatives/plftas
  3. While libraries are considered more trustworthy than search engines in general, respondents have a high level of confidence in themselves to use search engines to find trustworthy information. http://www.oclc.org/reports/2010perceptions.htm