Released: December 11, 2013

How Americans Value Public Libraries in Their Communities

Section 1: An Overview of Americans’ Public Library Use

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Most Americans ages 16 and older in the United States have used a public library at some point in their lives, and about half have used a public library in the past year.

A September 2013 Pew Research Center survey finds that 61% of those ages 16 and older have a library card, which is statistically similar to the 63% of Americans who said they had a library card in November 2012. Looking closer at library use, we find:

Taken together, 86% of Americans ages 16 and older have ever used a public library, either by visiting a public library or bookmobile in person or accessing a library website. Some 54% of Americans ages 16 and older have used a public library in some way in the past 12 months, including 73% of those with a library card.

Additionally, among parents with minor children living at home, 70% say that a child in the house has visited a public library or bookmobile in the past 12 months. Added up, this means that 72% of all Americans ages 16 and older have either used a public library in the past 12 months or live in a household where another family member or a child uses the library.

This chapter provides some demographic details about each of those library-using groups.

Public library use and library website use

Visiting a public library or bookmobile in person

Some 81% of Americans ages 16 and older have visited a public library at one point or another in their lives, and 48% of Americans have visited a public library or a bookmobile last 12 months. This represents a statistically significant five percentage-point change in public library attendance from late 2012, when 53% of those ages 16 and older said they had visited a library or bookmobile in the previous 12 months. Recent library visitors are more likely to be women, those under age 65, adults who have college degrees, and adults who live in households earning $100,000 or more.

Public library and bookmobile users

Among those who have visited a public library or bookmobile in person in the past year, 14% visit at least once a week, 17% said they visit several times a month, and 26% said they visit at least once a month. An additional 43% of those who have visited a public library in the past year say they visit the library less often than once a month.

Public library website users

Some 44% of those ages 16 and older have ever visited a public library website and 30% say they did so in the past 12 months—up from 25% in late 2012. Groups more likely than others to have used library websites include women, whites and African-Americans, those under age 50, adults with higher educational attainment, adults living in households earning $75,000 or more, parents of minor children, and urban residents.

Among those who have visited a public library website in the past year, 10% say they visit at least once a week, 15% visit several times a month, and 23% visit at least once a month. An additional 52% of those who have visited a library website in the past year say they use the website less often than once a month.

Public library website users

Overall public library use and changes over time

Taken together, 86% of Americans ages 16 and older have ever used a public library or library website, and 54% have personally used a library or library website in the past 12 months. This represents a statistically significant five percentage-point decrease from the 59% of Americans who said they had visited a library in the previous 12 months in 2012.1

We also asked all Americans who have ever used a public library or visited a public library website (86% of those ages 16 and older) how their library use has changed in the past five years. Some 16% said their library use has increased, and 57% said it has stayed about the same; another 25% said their library use has decreased in that time.

Library households

As noted above, 54% of Americans ages 16 and older have personally used a public library or website in the past 12 months, and a similar proportion (54%) say other members of their household are library users.  Additionally, in a separate question asked of parents with minor children living at home, 70% say that a child in the house has visited a public library or bookmobile in the past 12 months. Taken together, this means that 72% of all Americans ages 16 and older have either used a public library in the past 12 months or live in a household where another family member or a child uses the library.

In a closer look at household library use, we find:

Library card holders

Some 61% of Americans ages 16 and older say they have a library card for a public library. These card holders are more likely to be female, white, under the age of 65, and suburban and urban residents, and are also more likely to have higher levels of education or live in higher income households. About 21% of library card holders did not visit the library in the past 12 months, and 17% of those who have used a public library in the past year say they do not have a library card.

  1. numoffset=”3″ Note: In November 2012, a follow-up about library use in the past 12 months was asked as separate questions later in the interview, rather than as an immediate follow-up to the “ever” library use question, as done for the 2013 survey.