Released: January 22, 2013

Library Services in the Digital Age

Part 1: The role of libraries in people’s lives and communities

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The starting point of this research was to understand how people currently use their libraries. 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.

In our survey, we asked people about their general library patronage—if they had experiences with libraries in childhood, how often they visit libraries or library websites, and what sort of experiences they have had in these visits. We also asked people how important libraries are, not only to them and their family, but also to their community as a whole.

Family members’ library use from childhood

Most Americans have longstanding connections to local libraries, but a fifth have no memory of family members using the library. Some 77% say they remember someone else in their family using public libraries as they were growing up; one in five (20%) say that no one in their family used the library.

Women are more likely than men to say they remember a family member using the library when they were growing up, and respondents with higher levels of education and living in households with higher income levels are significantly more likely to say this as well. Hispanics are significantly less likely than whites or blacks to say that a family member used the library, and adults ages 65 and older are somewhat less likely than younger Americans to say this. Additionally, people living in urban or suburban areas are more likely to report that a family member used the library when they were growing up than those living in rural areas.

Americans’ library use

Overall, 84% of Americans ages 16 and older have visited a library or bookmobile in person. Women are more likely than men to have done so (86% vs. 81%), and whites (86%) are more likely than blacks (80%) or Hispanics (71%). Those with at least some college experience are more likely to have visited a library or bookmobile than those with lower levels of education. Younger age groups (especially those under 50) and those with higher levels of household income are generally more likely to have done so as well.

About 64% of those who had ever visited a public library say they had visited a public library or bookmobile in person in the past twelve months. This means that 53% of all Americans ages 16 and older visited a public library or bookmobile in person in the past year.

Women are more likely than men to have visited a library or bookmobile in the past year (59% vs. 48%), and those under the age of 65 are more likely than older adults to have done so as well. Americans who have at least some college experience are also significantly more likely than those who have not attended college to have visited a library in the past year.

Finally, those who remember a family member using the library while they were growing up are not only significantly more likely than those with no family experiences to have ever visited a library in person (90% vs. 64%), but are also more likely to have visited a library in the past year (59% vs. 34%).

Among those who have visited a public library in person in the past year:

Although many activities at libraries do not always require a library card, many others—such as borrowing books—do. Currently, 63% of Americans ages 16 and older have a library card, up from 58% in December 2011.

Experiences at libraries are positive

Among those who had ever used a public library, almost all respondents say that their experiences using public libraries are either very positive (57%) or mostly positive (41%); only about 1% say their experiences had been mostly negative.

Women, blacks, and adults ages 30 and older are significantly more likely than other groups to report “very positive” experiences at public libraries, as are Americans with at least a high school education. Respondents ages 16-17 are the least likely to report “very positive” experiences, with a majority (62%) reporting “mostly positive” experiences.

How important libraries are to individuals and their communities

In our December 2011 survey, we asked people how important libraries are to them and their families. For this survey, we asked respondents two questions: How important libraries are to them and their families, and also how important libraries are to their communities as a whole.

How important are libraries to you and your family?

Overall, a majority of Americans (76% of all respondents) say that libraries are important to them and their families, and 46% say that libraries are “very important”—up from 38% saying libraries are “very important” in December 2011.1 Women (51%) are more likely than men (40%) to say that libraries are “very important” to them and their families, and blacks (60%) and Hispanics (55%) are more likely to say this than whites (41%).

In addition, adults ages 30 and older (50%) are also more likely than adults ages 18-29 (38%) to say that libraries are “very important” to them and their families. Just 18% of 16-17 year-olds say this, though they are among the heaviest users of libraries. Those ages 16-17 are more likely to say that libraries are “somewhat important” (47%) or “not too important” (21%) to them and their families. Additionally, 52% of those in households making less than $30,000 per year say that libraries are “very important” to them and their families, with 82% saying that libraries are important overall—making those in this income bracket significantly more likely to say so than those in households making more than $50,000 per year.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, those who have used the library in the past twelve months are more likely to say libraries are important than those who have not. At least half (55%) of those who had used a library in the past year say that the library is “very important” to them and their families, compared with about a third (33%) of those who had not used a library in that time.

Similarly, those who are more familiar with the resources and programs at their local public library are more likely to say that libraries are important. Some 86% of those who say they know about “all or most” of the services their library offers say that libraries are important to them and their family overall, including the 60% who say libraries are “very important.” Among those who say they know “not much” or “none at all” of the services their libraries offers, 61% say the library is important to them and their families, and just 32% say it is “very important.”

Libraries’ importance to the community as a whole

When asked about the importance of public libraries to their community, at least nine in ten respondents (91%) say they considered the library either “very important” (63%) or “somewhat important” (28%) to their community as a whole.

While a strong majority of all groups considered libraries important to their communities, some demographic groups stand out in their assessments. Once again, women (69%) are more likely than men (57%) to say that the library was “very important” to their community, and blacks (74%) and Hispanics (67%) are more likely than whites (60%) to say this as well. Adults ages 30 and older are also more likely to consider the library “very important” to their community than younger respondents, and those living in households in the lowest income bracket are more likely to consider libraries “very important” to their community than those in households making at least $75,000 per year.

Even among those who had not used the library in the past year, at least half (53%) say they consider public libraries “very important” to their community as a whole, with 85% considering libraries important to their community overall. By comparison, 70% of those who had used the library in the past year consider libraries “very important” to their community, and 94% consider them important to their community overall.

Meanwhile, about three-quarters (74%) of those who are very familiar with their library’s services consider libraries “very important” to their community, compared with 49% of those who are generally unfamiliar with their library’s services; 94% of those very familiar with their library’s services say libraries are important to their community overall, as do 84% of those who know little to nothing about their library’s offerings.

In our focus groups, most participants said that they valued having libraries in their communities and would miss them if they were gone, especially as many were still dealing with the effects of the recession. One participant said, “I think our community would [miss our public library] because our library is extremely well used. The online system came into it its own right about the time the economy changed. Our library is extremely heavily used by people who five or six years ago might have been buying books,” but now can’t afford to.

Even the focus group participants who didn’t use their local libraries much said that they would miss them if they were gone. One said that she wanted to live in the sort of community that had a library, even though she personally had not used it yet. Another said that while the loss of her local library would probably not affect her personally, “I look at myself as a member of a community and so it would deeply affect my community”—and therefore have an impact on her as well. Another said: “I prefer to have libraries open to communities where people could not afford what I can afford.”

Cite this publication: Kathryn Zickuhr, Lee Rainie and Kristen Purcell. “Library Services in the Digital Age.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (January 22, 2013) http://libraries.pewinternet.org/2013/01/22/library-services/, accessed on July 23, 2014.

  1. In February 2012, question was a standalone question.