Released: January 22, 2013

Library Services in the Digital Age

Part 2: What people do at libraries and library websites

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In addition to asking people about their general feelings about libraries and their patterns of patronage, Pew Internet’s survey explored in depth what people do at libraries – both at the physical facilities and on library websites. These responses reported below were asked of the 53% of Americans who say they visited a library or bookmobile in the past 12 months.

Activities at libraries

Here is a rundown of the things people do at libraries among those who have visited a library or bookmobile in the past 12 months:

Browse the shelves for books or media

Almost three-quarters (73%) of library patrons in the past 12 months say they visit to browse the shelves for books or media. Women patrons are more likely than men to say they do this, as are parents of minor children, and people with at least some college experience.

Many of our focus group members mentioned how they enjoyed browsing the shelves at their local public library. One liked the process of discovery—“The cover can draw you in.” Even when they had reserved materials online, several liked to browse for books, movies, or music.

Borrow print books

Almost two-thirds (73%) of library patrons in the past 12 months also say they visit to borrow print books. Women are more likely than men to do this, as are parents of minor children and those with at least some college experience.

Our focus group members mentioned borrowing books more than any other activity. Several said they had recently started to borrow books more recently due to changes in economic circumstances, or when they retired. Others said that they began to borrow books more as their tastes in books changed, or when they simply ran out of space:

“As I got older, I bought more books and we moved a lot. As an adult, I moved a lot with our profession and I carted probably a roomful of books . . . Finally, I said ‘enough’ and we started going back to the library because we’re like this is—I don’t need to own all this anymore. So, now it’s more of ‘Let’s see if they have it at the library first before we buy it’ [mentality].”

Research topics that interest them

Some 54% of those who visited a library in the past 12 months say they visit to research topics that interest them.

Get help from a librarian

About half (50%) of those who have visited the library in the past year say they visit to get help from a librarian. African-Americans are more likely than whites to say they visit to get help from a librarian, as are those ages 50 and older and those who live in households earning less than $50,000. In addition, some non-technology users are more likely to say they get help from librarians: That is true of those who do not own tablet computers, those who do not own e-book readers, and those who do not own smartphones.

Sit, read, and study, or watch or listen to media

Some 49% of those who visited a library in the past 12 months say they visit just to sit, read, and study, or watch or listen to media. African-American and Latino patrons are more likely to say they do this than whites. Those ages 18-29 are especially likely to cite this as a reason for their library visit in the past 12 months, as are urban residents and those living in households earning less than $50,000.

Use a research database

About 46% of those who visited a library in the past 12 months say they visit to use a research database.

Attend or bring a younger person to a class, program, or event designed for children or teens

Some 41% of library patrons in the past 12 months say they visit to attend or bring a younger person to a class, program, or event designed for children or teens. Parents of minors are especially likely to cite this as a reason, as are women, African-Americans, those ages 30-49, and people with at least some college experience.

Borrow a DVD or videotape of a movie or TV show

About 40% of those who visited a library in the past 12 months say they visit to ­borrow a DVD or videotape of a movie or TV show. Parents of minors and those ages 30-64 are more likely than others to report this use of libraries. This service was mentioned by many of our focus group participants:

“We don’t have Netflix. A lot of people have Netflix subscriptions or whatever where they can see things right away, and with all the movie places like Blockbuster and Hollywood, those are gone . . . So I like the library because we can go get movies that we may want to watch, but we don’t want to own.”

Read or check out printed magazines or newspapers

About three in ten (31%) of library patrons in the past 12 months say they visit to read or check out printed magazines or newspapers. A focus group member said they stop by the library about once a week to read magazines: “It’s a wonderful way to spend some time if I’ve got it.”

Attend a meeting of a group

Some 23% of library patrons in the past 12 months say they visit to attend a meeting of a group to which they belong. Several focus group members who were involved in local groups said they appreciated this service, and some said their experiences using meeting spaces made the library seem more welcoming. Librarians in our online focus group also emphasized the library’s role as a community meeting space, especially in smaller communities that lacked other areas for groups to meet.

Attend a class, program, or lecture for adults

About one in five (21%) of those who visited a library in the past 12 months say they visit to attend a class, program, or lecture for adults. Women are more likely than men to report using the library for this purpose.

Borrow or download an audio book

About 17% of those who visited a library in the past 12 months say they visit to borrow or download an audio book.

Borrow a music CD

Some 16% of those who visited a library in the past 12 months say they visit to borrow a music CD. Urban and suburban residents are more likely to cite this as a reason for their library visits than are rural residents.

How frequently people receive assistance from library staff

Asked how often they get help from library staff in such things as answering research questions, 31% of library patrons in the past 12 months say they frequently get help, 39% say they sometimes get help, 23% say they hardly ever get help, and 7% say they never get help. There are variances in those answers by race and by class, as the charts below show. Minorities are more likely than whites to say they frequently or sometimes get help, and members of poorer households are more likely than members of richer households to say they get help.

Finally, those who own e-book readers and smartphones are more likely than others to say they hardly ever or never get help from librarians.

Asked how helpful library staffers are in general, 81% of those who had visited a library in the past 12 months say librarians are “very helpful,” 17% say “somewhat helpful,” 1% say “not too helpful” and another 1% say “not at all helpful.” There are no notable demographic differences in respondents’ answers to this question.

In our focus groups, many people reported having only positive impressions of libraries and librarians, especially if they had positive experiences growing up. One focus group member said:

“When I was younger, there was one librarian in particular, she remembered my name and every time I would come in with my mom I would take out stacks and stacks of books . . . I started getting really into reading more because of her and she would [compliment] me about how much I was reading, and it was like a challenge to me.  How much can I read?  How much can I read in this week so I can come back the next week and get more books. So for me, it was a very positive environment as a child.”

However, some participants, including some who mentioned that their libraries have experienced cutbacks recently, said that library staff were very busy, and weren’t able to give them the individual attention they remembered and valued from their childhood. One participant said that it seemed like there were so many programs going on, the librarians could seem too busy to just help people find books. At the same time, impressions and library experiences often varied in different areas even within the same city.

A few focus group members said that they often feel intimidated when visiting some library branches. These focus groups members said they weren’t very familiar with the Dewey Decimal system, which made it hard to find what they were looking for even if they were told the call number or pointed in the general direction; some said that library staff members they interacted with would become “frustrated” with them for not understanding such a basic concept:

“I live by our library, close by, walking distance.  I got intimated by trying to find the books.  It was like they say ‘it’s number-number-number and letter,’ like 100-EB or whatever it is.  I’d be like, ‘What?’ [Laughter] . . . Now I have more fun [reserving books] online and waiting for it to show up and enjoying that.  But when I went by myself . . . it was too [complicated].”

Use of library websites

In all, the Pew Internet Project survey finds that 39% of Americans ages 16 and older have gone to a library website at one time or another and, of them, 64% visited a library site in the previous 12 months. That translates into 25% of all Americans ages 16+ who visited a library website in the past year.

Those who are most likely to have visited library websites are parents of minors, women, those with college educations, those under age 50, and people living in households earning $75,000 or more.

The 25% of Americans ages 16 and older who went to a library website in the past 12 months tended to do so with modest frequency:

When they were on the sites, users sampled a wide variety of library services and there tended to be little variance by different demographic categories. Of those 25% of Americans who went to a library website in the past 12 months:

Several focus group members said that they wished their libraries promoted their website more. One said, “Even when I receive the emails, they never reference the website. I didn’t even know they had a website . . . If you want people to use it, you have to know about it.”

In general, focus group members said that their libraries’ websites are useful for finding basic information (hours, location), but a bit of a hassle to navigate for more complicated purposes. Some said that even finding and reserving books could be overly complicated, and others said that the interfaces seemed outdated. There wasn’t much sense that participants wanted their libraries’ websites to be a “community portal” in their own right—if they were using email or Facebook, they wanted their libraries to be using those methods of communication, but few seemed to think of their library’s website as a place to go for more general information in the first place. One focus participant said:

“I look up like free kids’ events and there’s this website … that sometimes has like free admission for kids—or if it’s seasonal I’ll literally type in ‘free pumpkin patches for kids’ [in a search engine] so I can take them to a pumpkin patch or something like that.  But I wouldn’t have even thought to [search for] ‘library free event for kids’.  I wouldn’t have even thought that the library would be a resource at all.”

Changes in library use in recent years

The rise of the internet – especially broadband connections – and the spread of mobile connectivity could potentially affect people’s use of their libraries. The Pew Internet survey asked recent library users about their use of libraries over the last five years. Recent library users are those who those who visited a public library in person in the past 12 months, or those who have gone on a public library website in the past 12 months, or those who have used a cell phone, e-reader or tablet to visit a public library website or access public library resources in the past 12 months. They amount to 59% of those who are ages 16 and older in the general population.

The results showed there is fluidity in library patronage patterns:

There are some demographic patterns to patronage changes: When it comes to those who have increased their use of libraries parents of minors are more likely than non-parents to say their library use has increased (30% vs. 23%), those with at least some college experience are more likely than those with high school diplomas to say their use has gone up (29% vs. 19%), and suburban residents (28%) are more likely than rural residents (20%) to report increased library use.

Those who say their library use has declined in the past five years are more likely to be non-parents (25%) than parents (17%) and those who are in the 18-29 age bracket (32%), compared to others who are younger or older.  Rural residents (61%) and those ages 65 and older (60%) are particularly likely to say their library use has not changed in the past five years.

The following table shows the reasons people gave when we asked why their library use had increased or decreased:

Many of these reasons were echoed by both the members of our in-person focus groups, many of whom mentioned some common patterns they’ve noticed in their own library use. Many patrons discussed how they had used the library frequently as children, but then visited public libraries less often in middle and high school. Their library use would pick up again for academic reasons in college, but not for pleasure reading. Many people said they “rediscovered” the library when they became parents, and again when they retired. They also cited changing habits as individual circumstances changed, such as the loss of a job or income (job searches, learning new skills).

A few focus group also said that discovering a new library service, such as e-book borrowing, would rekindle their interest in the library—and lead to an increase in use of other services. Some simply wished for more programs for single adults. One said that it seemed like all the programs at their library were “either for the senior citizens or for the really young children, like puppet shows [and] magic shows.  There’s no really in between for those teenagers, young adults, adults.”

Another thread in our focus group discussions was library hours. Several said that budget cutbacks had led their local libraries to scale back their hours, to the point that it was difficult to find time to stop by—especially when libraries didn’t have hours in the evenings or on weekends. “It’s not open much at all,” one said. “I mean a few hours a day and you can’t do a whole lot in that small amount of time.” Others said that their library’s schedule changed so often that they had trouble remembering when it would be open—and eventually stopped going at all.

Technology users and library use

As we noted earlier in this report, technology owners are somewhat more attached to their libraries than non-users. Internet users, tablet users, and smartphone users are more likely to have ever gone to libraries and more likely to have library cards. However, they are no more likely than non-owners to have visited a library or bookmobile in the past 12 months.

Asked to assess their library use over the past five years, recent library users who are home internet users, tablet users and smartphone owners are somewhat more likely than non-users to say their use has declined. And they are especially likely to say that the reason for their diminished use stems from the fact they can do research online.