Released: June 25, 2013

Younger Americans’ Library Habits and Expectations

Part 3: Library patrons’ activities and expectations

By , and


In broad strokes, younger Americans’ library habits are very similar to those of older adults. They also value many of the same things in public libraries, and have generally similar views on what services and resources libraries should offer to their communities.

However, our research also finds some notable differences, especially related to technology at libraries. Americans under age 30 are significantly more likely than older adults to have used the computers or internet at a library, for instance, and 97% say that this is an important service for libraries to provide to their communities. Younger library patrons are also significantly more likely than those over age 30 to use the library as a space to just sit and read, study, or watch or listen to media.

The sections that follow will examine younger library patrons’ habits and expectations in three loose categories:

Programs and spaces for younger patrons, and the role of the library as a community space.

An overview of patrons’ activities at libraries

In our national survey, we asked respondents who had visited a library or bookmobile in-person in the past 12 months about what they did at the library. We asked about 13 different activities, from browsing the shelves for books and media to attending classes and events (and explore them in detail beyond age group analysis in our recent report Libraries in the Digital Age.15) Below is an overview of how Americans use libraries; these activities will be discussed thematically in later sections.

Some 53% of Americans ages 16 and older visited a library or bookmobile in person in the past 12 months; the following chart breaks these activities down by general age group (ages 16-29 and ages 30 and older). Among recent library visitors, those ages 16-29 were significantly more likely to have visited the library just to study, sit and read, or watch or listen to media. Meanwhile, recent library visitors ages 30 and older were significantly more likely to have received help from a librarian in that time period, and to have brought a younger person to a class or event for children or teens. Older adults were also more likely to have borrowed a DVD or music CD.

23 what younger americans do

An overview of public priorities and expectations

In order to learn more about public priorities for libraries, we asked national survey respondents how important, if at all, they think it is for public libraries to provide various services to the community. All but one of the services are considered to be “very important” by a majority of respondents.

We also asked our national survey respondents, as well as our focus groups, about some different ways public libraries could change the way they serve the public, and whether or not they thought public libraries should implement these changes (if they do not offer these services already). In a separate, qualitative questionnaire aimed at public library staff members, we also asked librarians and other library workers their thoughts on these services.

Younger Americans were more often in favor of these ideas than older adults (specifically adults ages 50 and older), including having more comfortable spaces for reading, working, and relaxing, offering more interactive learning exhibits, and moving most services online.

24 should or should not implement

I. Books and media

Books remain strongly associated with libraries in Americans’ minds. Overall, 80% of Americans say that it is “very important” for libraries to provide books to the community for borrowing. Americans ages 16-29 are significantly less likely to say books at libraries are “very important” than adults ages 30 and older (75% vs.82%), but just as likely to say that books are important overall (94% vs.96%).

25 books very important

We see this reflected in what recent library visitors do at libraries:

We also asked about periodicals, and found that about three in ten (31%) Americans ages 16 and older who visited a library in the past year visit to read or check out printed magazines or newspapers, including 34% of those under age 30.

Looking at other forms of media people visit the library for:

E-books at libraries

Among the 25% of Americans who visited a library website in the past 12 months, 22% borrowed an e-book.16 Some 57% of Americans do not know if their library lends out e-books, including 53% of those under age 30.

About half of Americans (53%) say that libraries should “definitely” offer a broader selection of e-books. Some 30% say libraries should “maybe” do this, and 5% say libraries should “definitely not” do this.

Among those under age 30, 54% say that libraries should “definitely” offer a broader selection of e-books, 37% say libraries should “maybe” do this, and 4% say libraries should “definitely not” do this.

II. Technology and information resources

Some 73% of Americans ages 16 and older say there are places in their community where they can access the internet or use a computer for free, including 77% of those under age 30.17 And 35% of Americans say they have used those free access points, including 44% of those under age 30 (and 55% of those ages 16-17).

26 access internet for free

Use of computers and the internet at libraries

We asked those who had visited libraries in the past 12 months if they used the internet or computers at the library in a question designed to include people who used the wired computers at the library as well as people who had used the library Wi-Fi connection.18 We found that about a quarter (26%) of Americans ages 16 and older had connected to the internet at the library in the past year, including 38% of those ages 16-29.

27 computer and internet use

Additionally, some 36% of those who had ever visited a library in person say the library staff had helped them use a computer or the internet at a library. Those under age 30 are significantly more likely than older library visitors to say library staff has helped them use a computer or the internet at the library (43% vs.34%).

Among the 26% of Americans ages 16 and older who used the internet or computers at the library in the past year:

28 do on internet

While we did not ask a question about whether library internet users depend on the library as their primary internet connection, we did ask respondents how important they think it is to have free access to computers and the internet at the library in their community. According to the results of our national survey, three-quarters (77%) of Americans think it is “very important” for public libraries to provide free access to computers and the internet to the community, including 75% of Americans under age 30.

29 free library access

In response to the open-ended questions on our separate online questionnaire, several librarians agreed that providing both access to the internet and assistance with digital tasks were important roles for libraries in their communities. One wrote, “Not everyone has access to computers and internet on a regular basis. . . . Even children, teens, and young adults who do not have the resources to have internet/computer access 24 hours each day are not able to complete tasks online which others may find simple.”

Research resources

Several of the questions in our nationally representative phone survey touched on how Americans use public libraries for their research needs. In general, we found wide support for libraries providing research resources, including specialized resources that otherwise may not available for free to the general public—for instance, 96% of Americans under age 30 say it is important for libraries to provide research resources such as free databases.

In looking at how Americans use libraries for research, we find:

In focus groups and in our online panel, librarians echoed these findings in describing how the library is used by older teens and young adults for studying and research. One library staff member especially emphasized the role of the library as a physical space for study, writing that librarians should “reach out more to young adults and offer a safe place for them to study, to ask questions and discover answers.”

In addition to space and basic resources such as computers and internet access, most libraries also offer access to specialized digital resources such as subscription databases—and Americans identify these services as key resources for the community. In fact, almost three-quarters (73%) of Americans ages 16 and older say it is “very important” for public libraries to provide research resources such as free databases to the community, including 76% of those under age 30.

Overall, about 46% of those who visited a library in the past 12 months say they visit to use a research database, including 51% of those under age 30. Library users ages 65 and older are the least likely age group to say they come to the library for this reason (33%).

In discussions about providing research databases for the public, many librarians in our focus groups said that patrons are not generally aware of the databases that are available or how these databases differ from the resources available through a public search engine such as Google. Several cited students’ lack of awareness in particular. One member of our online panel wrote: “We . . . need to encourage young adults to use the resources we provide for free-databases, e-books, programs, etc. rather than relying solely on Google and other search engines.”

One librarian said that while students weren’t always aware of databases, the library staff made an effort to teach them about research resources:

“We’re big advocates of the databases, especially with the students when they come in, and they have to do a research paper and they’re looking for articles on certain things, so letting them know that you don’t necessarily have to have a physical journal . . . I can show you how you can access the journals from home.”

However, another issue identified by library staff members was potential confusion among both high school and college students as to whether using online databases would be considered an “online source” by their instructors.20 “They don’t understand or care about the difference between a database that they get to from the internet and the internet,” one librarian said in a focus group. As another librarian in an in-person focus group put it, “Their teachers say, ‘No internet resources. You can’t use the internet.’ It’s like you want to say, ‘But this isn’t really the internet. It’s not what your teacher meant.'” 21

Several librarians cited their efforts to surface a variety of databases, beyond those used for research. One said, “There are a number of databases just for people who are seeking jobs, careers, skills, GED, testing sites that are buried that we want to bring out and highlight and make them more visible for the customer.”

Many librarians did cite job search and career resources as a major service provided by their library, a view that is shared by the general public: Two-thirds (67%) of Americans ages 16 and older think it is “very important” to the community for public libraries to provide job, employment and career resources, including 71% of those under age 30. And over a third (36%) of Americans ages 16 and older who used the internet at a library in the past 12 months say they did so to look for jobs or apply for jobs online, including 38% of those under the age of 30.

New digital resources and automation

Library staff members in our focus groups and online panel discussed various ways libraries focus younger patrons after high school. Participants often said that younger adults in their libraries wanted digital services to be easy to use—“seamless,” in the words of one focus group member:

“It has to be easy. It has to be really easy for them or they’re not going to do it. So, making our services as seamless as possible can sometimes be a barrier because you have to work with the company that’s providing the service. You have to work with the publishers. It’s really hard to make it all come together in a seamless way.”

In our national survey of the general public, we asked whether libraries should make various major changes, such as automating most services or moving most services online:

III. Programs and spaces for younger patrons

Libraries as a community space

One strong theme that emerged from our survey findings and in qualitative discussions was the role of the library as a community space. “A warm, welcoming and friendly space is hard to find these days,” one librarian in our online panel wrote, “and the public library has the remarkable opportunity to become a community gathering place in communities where such a space is sorely missing.”

Through our national phone survey, we attempted to quantify Americans’ views on several different roles that libraries may play in their communities:

The different demands these various type of services might be why a majority (61%) of Americans say that libraries should “definitely” have completely separate locations or spaces for different services, such as children’s services, computer labs, reading spaces, and meeting rooms, including 57% of Americans under age 30.

However, when we asked about how libraries could make space for all these activities, we found that Americans overall are less than enthusiastic about the idea of removing print books from their central place. Just one in five Americans (20%), including 23% of those under age 30, say that libraries should “definitely” move some print books and stacks out of public locations to free up more space for things such as technology centers, reading rooms, meetings rooms, and cultural events. Yet while this idea lacked immediate support among all age groups, those under age 30 were somewhat more open to this idea in general, as they were significantly more likely than older adults to say that libraries should “maybe” do this (47% vs.36%).

Patrons in our focus group often identified children’s areas and teen hangout spaces as especially important to keep separate from the main reading or lounge areas, to keep noise levels and other distractions down to a minimum—and the librarians we spoke with agreed. Having a separate area is “very inviting for teens [because] they don’t have to worry about being very quiet,” one librarian said.

In addition to reducing noise and interruptions for other patrons, many librarians told us that having separate spaces was important to give children and young adults a sense of independence and ownership. One online respondent pointed out that “the public library’s role as ‘third place’ is particularly important for teens, since few noncommercial public spaces welcome and engage teens.”

A library staff member in our online panel wrote:

“Having a separate children’s area or young adults area will cater solely to those groups and make them feel that the library is theirs. They do not have to deal with adults watching them or monitoring what book they pick or what they choose to do—it’s all about them and what they want with no judgment. Children and teens love having their own space so why not give them that at the library?”

Many of the library staff members in our online panel said that their libraries already have separate locations for different services. Those who said their library was not very likely to do this in the future often cited issues of space, or funding; one pointed out that “in small libraries, often operated by a single staff member, separate spaces cannot be for reasons of security or even customer service.”

One potential solution that focus group members discussed was sound-proof teen sections with glass walls, allowing for both supervision and privacy. One librarian described a similar teen section at a nearby library:

“The teens really take ownership of it. From the information desk, a librarian can see in to make sure nothing is going on but it’s still private because it’s more or less sound-proof from the rest [of the library]. They can enjoy their time there. Patrons reading in the magazine room can have their own quiet area. It’s a really nice set-up.”

Libraries and schools

Whether in focus groups or national survey results, one theme that stood out was the desire for libraries to coordinate more closely with local schools. Overall, 85% of respondents say that libraries should “definitely” coordinate more closely with local schools in providing resources to kids. This opinion was also frequently voiced by parents23 in our focus groups, as discussed in a recent report. (Another popular service was free early literacy programs to help young children prepare for school, which 82% of respondents say that libraries should “definitely” offer.)

While these findings do not apply directly to the younger Americans in this 16-29 year-old age group, many librarians told us that connecting with younger children early in their education was a valuable way to create connections that would continue as they grow older.

“Interacting with children and young adults at their schools is an important aspect of encouraging these groups to use the library at a young age,” one library staff member in our online panel wrote. “These groups may be more likely to use the library as adults if they are comfortable there as children.” Another wrote that close coordination with local public schools “has increased program attendance and circulation in the children and teens area because the youth services librarian has made an effort to connect.”

Programs and classes for children and teens

When it comes to programs and resources for younger patrons:

In focus groups, librarians described their various experiences with teens at their libraries, and emphasized that the situation varies from town to town—and library to library:

“In some of the branches there’s a large teen population that’s going to hang out there anyway. So, it’s providing them with something to do while they’re in there. Some [libraries] are trying to pull [teens] into the branch and some . . . are just trying to deal with the [teens] that they have.”

Another librarian in the focus group had a similar experience:

“I spent most of my first year as a librarian in a very small . . . branch in the county, in a very low income community that desperately needs a library. The kids would come in. A lot of them haven’t stepped foot in the library before and they didn’t know how to behave, what to do, what they could do. There are three hours per day of computer time and then I’ve heard them say, ‘Oh, I’m logged off. There’s nothing else to do. Let’s go home.’ So, our goal in that specific branch was to give them something to do . . . They’re going to hang out there anyway, so, we wanted to keep them occupied, out of trouble, and not disruptive. So, when we started introducing LEGO programs for the tween demographic and board game programs for the older teens, it improved a lot. They would invite their friends. It was more structured and the issues went down significantly after that.”

Another librarian also cited crafts and other activities as ways to bring new teens into library programs, especially when they take place in visible public areas:

“Every quarter we do two or three crafts. Making origami craft, make a CD clock, bracelets. . . . Sometimes we do them right on the public floor so that if we can’t get teens to come down into the meeting room because they’re shy or reluctant, we can maybe get their attention right there on the floor by wearing the bracelet [craft] around and going up to teens and getting them to come over to a table right on the floor.”

Librarians we spoke with mentioned several potential roadblocks in creating teen programs, such as lacking the funds, space, or available and trained staff. In an answer to our online questionnaire, one library staff member wrote that while funding issues existed, “the bigger problem is geographic and transport related. We cannot bring together a critical mass of young people at one time and one place,” although coordinating with the local school’s bus schedules might be a workaround in the future.

Digital media labs

One library innovation that we explored was digital media labs, where patrons can create and upload new digital content, such as music, movies, or their own e-books. Overall, 58% of respondents say they would be interested in a digital media lab where patrons could create and upload new digital content; some 26% say they would be “very likely” to use such a resource.

Among those under age 30, 27% said they would be “very likely” to use digital media labs, and 67% said they would be likely to use them overall (significantly more than older adults). Adults 65 and older were the least likely to say they would be likely to use such a lab—32% said they would be likely to use them overall, compared with over half of younger respondents, and just 15% said they would be “very likely” to use them.

One example of this type of space that has a particular focus on younger patrons is the YOUmedia teen learning spaces, which are funded by the MacArthur Foundation and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The first YOUmedia space, YOUmedia Chicago, opened in 2009, and offers teens both access to digital technologies and resources as well as guidance and mentoring from adult library staff. A new report, “Teens, Digital Media, and the Chicago Public Library,” analyzes YOUmedia Chicago’s first three years.24

Several of the librarians who answered our online questionnaire were enthusiastic about the idea of media labs. One wrote: “[We should have] more teen services and dedicated teen space for exploring technology and literacy—a multimedia lab and teen lounge! We have to reach this population and mentor them at a higher rate than we do today.”

However, few of the librarians wrote that their libraries already offer this. When asked why not, some mentioned staff time, technology resources, budget concerns, and space as primary factors. Others mentioned liability issues related to user-created content. One of the librarians in our online panel wrote, “I want to work more with the teens on content creation. We are good with the old fashioned programs such as writing groups and art, but when it comes to playing with new technology, money, training and equipment get in the way.”

Other activities

Another potential area of change that librarians identified in our qualitative work was the need for programming that would appeal to younger adults. Asked about what libraries need to change, one library staff member wrote: “[There’s] not enough programming for teens and actual young adults; it seems that in the library world the term ‘young adult’ refers to children aged ten to thirteen.” Another librarian agreed: “We should also focus on the ‘lost’ age group of older-than-teens-but-younger-than-baby-boomers for programs.”

Overall, over six in ten Americans (63%), including 64% of those under age 30, say it is “very important” for public libraries to provide free events and activities, such as classes and cultural events, for people of all ages. About one in five (21%) Americans who visited a library in the past 12 months say they visit to attend a class, program, or lecture for adults, including 20% of those under age 30.

However, several librarians and patrons in our focus groups noted that many programs and events for adults are often targeted toward parents with young children. “We need to find a way to get young adults into the library,” one librarian wrote. “I mean the ones who do not have children. There needs to be a reason that a 30 year old goes to the library that is not to drop off their kids to story time. We are missing entire generations until they reach retirement age.”

  2. The sample size was too small in this survey to report the breakdown by age group. For more on e-books at libraries, see “Libraries, patrons, and e-books” (2012) at
  3. The American Library Association reports that 62% of libraries report they are the only source of free public access to computers and the Internet in their communities. Study available here.
  4. “In the past 12 months, have you used computers, the internet, or a public WI-FI network at a public library?”
  5. Note: For library computer/internet users under age 30, n=90 or 96 depending on form split.
  6. Students are often given requirements limiting the number of online sources they can cite, or requiring that their sources include a certain proportion of journal articles or books.
  7. See also “How Teens Do Research in the Digital World” (2012):
  8. More views about how quiet libraries should be:
  10. See “Teens, Digital Media, and the Chicago Public Library,” by Penny Bender Sebring, Eric R. Brown, Kate M. Julian, Stacy B. Ehrlich, Susan E. Sporte, Erin Bradley, and Lisa Meyer at the UChicago Consortium on Chicago School Research (May 2013): More: /