Released: January 22, 2013

Library Services in the Digital Age

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Summary of findings

The internet has already had a major impact on how people find and access information, and now the rising popularity of e-books is helping transform Americans’ reading habits. In this changing landscape, public libraries are trying to adjust their services to these new realities while still serving the needs of patrons who rely on more traditional resources. In a new survey of Americans’ attitudes and expectations for public libraries, the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project finds that many library patrons are eager to see libraries’ digital services expand, yet also feel that print books remain important in the digital age.

The availability of free computers and internet access now rivals book lending and reference expertise as a vital service of libraries. In a national survey of Americans ages 16 and older:

Moreover, a notable share of Americans say they would embrace even wider uses of technology at libraries such as:

When Pew Internet asked the library staff members in an online panel about these services, the three that were most popular were classes on e-borrowing, classes on how to use handheld reading devices, and online “ask a librarian” research services. Many librarians said that their libraries were already offering these resources in various forms, due to demand from their communities.

These are some of the key findings from a new national survey of 2,252 Americans ages 16 and older by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project and underwritten by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The interviews were conducted on October 15-November 10, 2012 and done on cell phone and landlines and in English and Spanish.

Public priorities for libraries

Asked for their thoughts on which services libraries should offer to the public, majorities of Americans are strongly in favor of:

These services were also most popular with the library staff members in our online panel, many of whom said that their library had either already implemented them or should “definitely” implement them in the future.

At the same time, people have different views about whether libraries should move some printed books and stacks out of public locations to free up space for tech centers, reading rooms, meeting rooms, and cultural events: 20% of Americans ages 16 and older said libraries should “definitely” make those changes; 39% said libraries “maybe” should do that; and 36% said libraries should “definitely not” change by moving books out of public spaces.

Americans say libraries are important to their families and their communities, but often do not know all the services libraries offer

Fully 91% of Americans ages 16 and older say public libraries are important to their communities; and 76% say libraries are important to them and their families. And libraries are touchpoints in their communities for the vast majority of Americans: 84% of Americans ages 16 and older have been to a library or bookmobile at some point in their lives and 77% say they remember someone else in their family using public libraries as they were growing up.

Still, just 22% say that they know all or most of the services their libraries offer now. Another 46% say they know some of what their libraries offer and 31% said they know not much or nothing at all of what their libraries offer.

Changes in library use in recent years

In the past 12 months, 53% of Americans ages 16 and older visited a library or bookmobile; 25% visited a library website; and 13% used a handheld device such as a smartphone or tablet computer to access a library website. All told, 59% of Americans ages 16 and older had at least one of those kinds of interactions with their public library in the past 12 months. Throughout this report we call them “recent library users” and some of our analysis is based on what they do at libraries and library websites.

Overall, 52% of recent library users say their use of the library in the past five years has not changed to any great extent. At the same time, 26% of recent library users say their library use has increased and 22% say their use has decreased. The table below highlights their answers about why their library use changed:

How people use libraries

Of the 53% of Americans who visited a library or bookmobile in person in the past 12 months, here are the activities they say they do at the library:

Internet use at libraries

Some 26% of Americans ages 16 and older say they used the computers there or the WiFi connection to go online. Here’s what they did on that free internet access:

Additionally, some 36% of those who had ever visited a library say the library staff had helped them use a computer or the internet at a library.

African-Americans and Hispanics are especially tied to their libraries and eager to see new services

Compared to whites, African-Americans and Hispanics are more likely to say libraries are important to them and their families, to say libraries are important to their communities, to access the internet at the library (and feel internet access is a very important service libraries provide), to use library internet access to hunt/apply for jobs, and to visit libraries just to sit and read or study.

For almost all of the library resources we asked about, African-Americans and Hispanics are significantly more likely than whites to consider them “very important” to the community. That includes: reference librarians, free access to computers/internet, quiet study spaces, research resources, jobs and careers resources, free events, and free meeting spaces.

When it comes to future services, African-Americans and Hispanics are more likely than whites to support segregating library spaces for different services, having more comfortable spaces for reading, working and relaxing, offering more learning experiences similar to museum exhibits, helping users digitize material such as family photos or historical documents.

Also, minorities are more likely than whites to say they would use these new services specified in the charts below.

Statistical analysis that controls for a variety of demographic factors such as income, educational attainment, and age shows that race and ethnicity are significant independent predictors of people’s attitudes about the role of libraries in communities, about current library services, and about their likely use of the future library services we queried.

In addition, African-Americans are more likely than whites to say they have “very positive” experiences at libraries, to visit libraries to get help from a librarian, to bring children or grandchildren to library programs.

About this research

This report explores the changing world of library services by exploring the activities at libraries that are already in transition and the kinds of services citizens would like to see if they could redesign libraries themselves. It is part of a larger research effort by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project that is exploring the role libraries play in people’s lives and in their communities. The research is underwritten by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

This report contains findings from a survey of 2,252 Americans ages 16 and above between October 15 and November 10, 2012. The surveys were administered on half on landline phones and half on cellphones and were conducted in English and Spanish. The margin of error for the full survey is plus or minus 2.3 percentage points.

There were several long lists of activities and services in the phone survey. In many cases, we asked half the respondents about one set of activities and the other half of the respondents were asked about a different set of activities. These findings are representative of the population ages 16 and above, but it is important to note that the margin of error rises when only a portion of respondents is asked a question.

There are also findings in this report that come from an online panel canvassing of librarians who have volunteered to participate in Pew Internet surveys. Some 2,067 library staff members participated in the online canvassing that took place between December 17 and December 27, 2012. No statistical results from that canvassing are reported here because it was an opt-in opportunity meant to draw out comments from patrons and librarians, and the findings are not part of a representative, probability sample. Instead, we highlight librarians’ written answers to open-ended questions that illustrate how they are thinking about and implementing new library services.

In addition, we quote librarians and library patrons who participated in focus groups in-person and online that were devoted to discussions about library services and the future of libraries. One batch of in-person focus groups was conducted in Chicago on September 19-20. Other focus groups were conducted in Denver on October 3-4 and in Charlotte, N.C. on December 11-12. Some 2,067 library staff members participated in the online panel.


About Pew Internet

The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project is an initiative of the Pew Research Center, a nonprofit “fact tank” that provides information on the issues, attitudes, and trends shaping America and the world. The Pew Internet Project explores the impact of the internet on children, families, communities, the work place, schools, health care and civic/political life. The Project is nonpartisan and takes no position on policy issues. Support for the Project is provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts. More information is available at

Advisors for this research

A number of experts have helped Pew Internet in this research effort:

Larra Clark, American Library Association, Office for Information Technology Policy

Mike Crandall, Professor, Information School, University of Washington

Allison Davis, Senior Vice President, GMMB

Catherine De Rosa, Vice President, OCLC

LaToya Devezin, American Library Association Spectrum Scholar and librarian, Louisiana

Amy Eshelman, Program Leader for Education, Urban Libraries Council

Sarah Houghton, Director, San Rafael Public Library, California

Mimi Ito, Research Director of Digital Media and Learning Hub, University of California Humanities Research Institute

Patrick Losinski, Chief Executive Officer, Columbus Library, Ohio

Jo McGill, Director, Northern Territory Library, Australia

Dwight McInvaill, Director, Georgetown County Library, South Carolina

Bobbi Newman, Blogger, Librarian By Day

Carlos Manjarrez, Director, Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Institute of Museum and Library Services

Johana Orellana-Cabrera, American Library Association Spectrum Scholar and librarian in TX.

Mayur Patel, Vice President for Strategy and Assessment, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Karen Archer Perry, Senior Program Officer, Global Libraries, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Sharman Smith, Executive Director, Mississippi Library Commission

Michael Kelley, Editor-in-Chief, Library Journal

Disclaimer from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

This report is based on research funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The findings and conclusions contained within are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect positions or policies of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.