Released: December 11, 2013

How Americans Value Public Libraries in Their Communities

Section 3: Perceptions of Public Libraries

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Americans’ perceptions of public libraries

Libraries' roles in their communities

The vast majority of Americans ages 16 and older say that public libraries play an important role in providing free access to materials and resources, promote literacy and a love of reading, and improve the overall quality of life in a community:

Libraries and technology

We also asked for respondents’ views on the importance of public libraries at a time many Americans are increasingly connected through the internet and mobile devices—and others remain offline altogether. Though respondents were generally split on whether libraries are as essential for finding information today, a majority of Americans think that that public libraries have “done a good job” keeping up with new technologies; most said that public libraries provide many services that people would have a hard time finding elsewhere:

In general, women and adults ages 30-64 express the strongest positive views about public libraries, as do respondents who have used a public library in the past. African Americans and Hispanics are also more likely than whites and English-speaking Asian Americans to have strongly positive views about libraries, though Hispanics are also most likely to strongly agree that libraries are not as needed today or that libraries have not kept up with new technologies.

Americans who both use public library and have family members who use libraries are most likely to express strong positive views, although Americans who live in library households but themselves have not used a library recently are also more likely than those with no recent library exposure to express strong positive views.

Access to public libraries

How far away is the closest public library?In order to learn more about public libraries’ accessibility to their communities, we asked a series of questions about people’s experiences around visiting public libraries and using library websites.

We find that the vast majority (91%) of Americans say they know where the closest public library is to where they currently live; among these respondents, most said the closest public library is five miles or less away from their home.

Overall, 93% of Americans say that it would be easy to visit a public library in person if they wanted to, with 62% saying it would be “very easy” and 31% saying it would be “easy.” However, there was some variation by race/ethnicity, community type, and other factors:

When it comes to accessing a public library website, 82% of Americans say that it would be easy to use the website of a local public library overall, with 47% saying it would be “very easy” and 35% saying it would be “easy”. In addition:

Awareness of public library services and ease of findings things

How well-informed do you feel about the different services and programs your library offers?Among Americans ages 16 and older who have ever used a public library, 23% said they feel like they know all or most of the services and programs at their public library, while a plurality (47%) said that they know some of what it offers. Another 20% said they don’t know much about their public library’s service, and 10% said they know nothing at all. These findings are generally consistent with the results of our November 2012 survey.6

Adults ages 30-64 generally felt more aware of library services than younger or older respondents, as did women and parents with minor children living at home. Whites and blacks were also more likely than Hispanics and English-speaking Asian Americans to say they are aware of at least some of the services offered by their public library. Adults with at least some college experience generally felt more informed about the services and programs their public library offers than those with lower levels of education. There were no significant differences by household income.

How well informed, demographic breakdown

Americans say it is usually easy to find what they are looking for at a libraryWe also asked those who have ever visited a public library in person how easy or difficult it usually is to find what they’re looking for when they visit a public library. Most (56%) say it is generally “easy” to find what they’re looking for, and an additional 35% say it is “very easy.” Another 5% say it is “difficult,” and 1% say it is “very difficult.” In general, adults with higher levels of education, particularly college graduates, were more likely to say it is easy to find what they are looking for at the library.

Experiences at public libraries

Most describe library's physical condition positivelyAmong those who have ever used a public library, 67% said that the public library nearest to where they live could be described as a “nice, pleasant space to be.” Older respondents were more likely than younger respondents to say their library is pleasant space: 74% of those 65 and older say this, compared with 61% of 16-17 year-olds.

In response to a separate question, an overwhelming majority of Americans who have ever used a public library (94%) said that based on their own experiences, they would say that “public libraries are welcoming, friendly place.” Just 4% disagreed .

Similarly, 91% of those who have ever used a public library said that they personally have never had a negative experience using a public library in person or online, while 9% said they had. Some groups were more likely to report negative experiences, including 16-17 year-olds (14%) and students (12%). Self-employed respondents (17%), job seekers (13%), and those living with a disability (12%) were also more likely to say they have had a negative experience at a public library.

  1. Library Services in the Digital Age, Part 4: What people want from their libraries