Libraries in the Digital Age

Public library engagement in urban, suburban, and rural communities

July 11, 2014

Our library engagement typology found that Americans fall into four broad levels of engagement with public libraries, which can further be divided into nine total groups. (Want to see which group you fall into? Take our library user type quiz to find out!)

But how common are these groups in urban, suburban, and rural areas?1

Library engagement among different community types

Print Traditionalists, a medium-engagement group, are far more likely to live in rural areas than any other group, and account for one in five rural residents. Meanwhile, the low-engagement Young and Restless group, along with the highly-engaged Information Omnivores, are more likely than most others to live in urban areas, and are relatively scarce in rural communities. Finally, looking at our two non-engagement groups (comprised of people who have never used a public library), we see that suburban and rural areas also contain higher proportions of Distant Admirers, while urban areas contain higher proportions of those Off the Grid.

Update: Here’s how that same chart looks by overall levels of library engagement (high/medium/low/none):

Engagement levels among community types

So what’s going on here? A lot of it boils down to demographics. We know, for instance, that people living in rural areas tend to have lower levels of education and are more likely to be older than those who live in urban or suburban areas—all factors that are associated with lower levels of library engagement.

Community type demographics

Similarly, people living in urban areas are more likely to be in younger age groups than those in other community types, and those living in suburban areas are more likely to have higher levels of household income—both features that are associated with higher levels of library engagement.


What sort of library users (or non-users) are in your community? Click here to learn more about how to create a library user type quiz for your community or group.

  1. The community designations that form the basis of this report are based on the location of the telephone number in a community of a specific size.  For landline numbers in the sample, urban/suburban/rural designations based on Office of Management and Budget (OMB) definitions are appended to each number in the sample by the survey sample vendor.  For cell phone numbers, respondents are asked the zip code in which they live and then those cell phone respondents are matched to known community type designations based on landlines in the same zip code.  For about 5% of the sample, almost exclusively cell phone respondents, community type cannot be determined because the zip code provided cannot be matched to existing community type designations.

Public libraries and technology: From “houses of knowledge” to “houses of access”

July 09, 2014

One major finding in our research into Americans’ use of public libraries is the extent to which libraries are synonymous not only with knowledge and information, but with the tools needed to acquire it in the digital age. Some 77% of Americans now think it is “very important” for public libraries to provide free access to computers and the internet to the community, and 95% think it is important overall. (For comparison, 80% of Americans say that it is “very important” for libraries to provide books to the community for borrowing.)

Qualitative work with library staff members echoes these findings. “Our most popular area is the public access computers,” one librarian told us. Many emphasized that they see the role of a public library enabling access to information, regardless of format. “I believe public libraries should move away from being ‘houses of knowledge’ and move more towards being ‘houses of access,’” one wrote. “This is what the public is asking for and we are here to serve them.”

An article in the New York Times yesterday illustrated this point by exploring some of the ways that patrons of the Clason’s Point Library branch in the Bronx rely on the library’s internet access—even when the library itself is closed:

Like most homes in his part of the Bronx, Joey’s apartment has no Internet access. Even before the library opens for the day, people stand outside, polishing résumés, then dash in at the crack of 10 a.m. to use the printers. “Then they get right on the train for job interviews,” said Wanda Luzon, the manager of the Clason’s Point Branch of the New York Public Library.

Joey, 15, who is going to be a sophomore in high school, arrives at the end of the day, after he is finished at the year-round academic enrichment program he attends in Manhattan. He walks a block from the Westchester Avenue el, then settles in at the library until closing time, which is 7 p.m. on Mondays. Then he continues his online session through the library’s network.

“I’ve got an hour before sunset, when it gets dangerous,” Joey said.

As he spoke, a young woman nearby finished her online sidewalk session and moved on.

Our data shows that 91% of Americans have either used a public library at some point in their life, or say someone else in their household uses a public library. Among them,  77% of Americans who use the internet but lack home access say computer and internet access at their public library is important to them and their family—including 56% who say it is “very important.” The New York Times article also cited research from the New York Public Library which found that a majority of patrons who use the library’s internet and computers lack home internet access.

In general, Americans living in lower-income households are also more likely than those in higher-income households to say that internet access at libraries—as well as many other services—are important to them and their families (as shown in the following chart).

Lower income adults more likely to say library services important

Currently, 75% of adults living in households earning less than $30,000 per year use the internet, but only about 52% have a broadband connection at home.

Public libraries and the quiz-takers who love them

July 08, 2014

The Pew Research Center recently released a library user quiz (“What kind of library user are you?”) based on the nationally representative telephone survey findings in our report, “From Distant Admirers to Library Lovers–and beyond: A typology of public library engagement in America.”

Much like our political typology, the library engagement typology sorts Americans ages 16 and older into different groups based on their habits and attitudes—in this case, based on how they use public libraries and perceive libraries’ importance in their communities. The quiz, which has been taken over 15,000 times, is a fun (and non-scientific) way for our website visitors and various community groups to compare their library habits to those of the general population.

So how did the online quiz-takers compare with the results of our nationally representative telephone survey? Read more »

7 surprises about libraries in our surveys

June 30, 2014

The Pew Research Center’s studies about libraries and where they fit in the lives of their communities and patrons have uncovered some surprising facts about what Americans think of libraries and the way they use them. As librarians around the world are gathered in Las Vegas for the American Library Association’s annual conference, here are findings that stand out from our research.  Read more »

How does your community’s library engagement compare with the rest of the country?

June 30, 2014

Are you a librarian, educator, civic leader or a member of the public who is interested in your local public library’s role in your community? Compare the library engagement of your library or group with the rest of the country using our new “community quiz” tool!

What kind of library users are in your community?

With the community quiz tool, you can learn how your community’s members use their local public library, how they think about their library’s impact on the community, and how they view the importance of libraries in the digital age. You will also see how the responses of your group compare with those of the general population, based on the results of our nationally representative September 2013 phone survey.

The new quiz tool allows you to create your own version of our library user quiz and invite members of your community to take it. You will then be able to see the overall results of everyone who have taken your version of the quiz. (Note: You will be able to see the aggregate quiz results for your group; everyone who takes the quiz will do so anonymously and the answers of individual respondents will not be available.)

To get started, click here to register your group. You will then receive an email with your unique URL and group ID, which you can use to  invite members of your group to take your version of the quiz. (Check out our Help Center for more detailed instructions.)

An example of a results page
An example of a results page comparing a group’s responses to those of the general population.

In general, you have two main options for inviting members of your community to take your quiz:

Please note that anyone who takes the quiz with your unique URL or group ID will be considered part of your community, and thus counted in your results. Read More »

“Stack attack”? The NYPL controversy and the future of public libraries

May 13, 2014

Indicator Main Reading Room and New York Public Library Central Building Stacks.
Indicator Main Reading Room and New York Public Library Central Building Stacks. Source: NYPL Digital Collections

The New York Public Library recently announced that it is rethinking its controversial plans to turn parts of its 42nd Street location into a public lending library—replacing the stacks that housed its research collection with a four-story atrium in the process. NYPL announced Thursday that they will scrap those plans due to budget concerns, and instead keep the research library and its stacks intact.

Or, as a New York Daily News headline put it: “The New York Public Library has pulled the plug on its planned stack attack.”

Read More »

A new way of looking at public library engagement in America

March 18, 2014

We recently released our latest report, a typology of public library engagement in America. Using the data behind our previous report on how people value libraries in their communities, this typology divides Americans into nine groups that reflect different patterns of public library engagement along a general spectrum of high, medium, low, and non-engagement.

This approach is a little new for us. Our previous reports have explored topics such as what people do at libraries and library websites or how Americans value individual library services based on traditional factors such as gender, race/ethnicity, age, and household income, but this typology moves beyond basic demographic descriptions. Instead, we used statistical analysis to cluster individuals into groups based on their usage of, views toward, and access to libraries, in order to discover larger insights about how libraries fit into American culture. The following table provides an overview of the typology groups.

Library engagement typology overview

One thread running throughout the report is that people’s library habits do not exist in a vacuum. Americans’ connection—or lack of connection—with public libraries is part of their broader information and social landscape. Those who have extensive economic, social, technological, and cultural resources are also more likely to use and value libraries as part of those networks. Meanwhile, many of those who are less engaged with public libraries tend to have lower levels of technology use, fewer ties to their neighbors, lower feelings of personal efficacy, and less engagement with other cultural activities. These findings echo in several ways: Read More »

10 facts about Americans and public libraries

January 24, 2014

Technology and the internet are changing Americans’ reading habits and also their relationship with libraries. Half of Americans now own a tablet or e-reader and libraries have responded by expanding their digital offerings.

But what hasn’t changed is Americans’ love for books. American adults still read about as much as ever and overwhelmingly say libraries play an important role in their communities. In advance of the American Library Association’s Midwinter Convention (#alamw14) in Philadelphia, here are some key facts and trends we have chronicled in our research on America’s public libraries.  Read more » 

New reading data from the NEA’s Survey of Public Participation in the Arts

October 02, 2013

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) recently released the findings of its latest Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, conducted in July 2012.

nea[1] copy

As of mid-2012, the survey found that 58% of all American adults ages 18 and older had engaged in “voluntary reading” within the past year. Here’s how that “Voluntary Reading” category breaks down:

Overall, 58% of American adults (or roughly 136 million Americans) did at least one of these types of reading in the previous year. Our own research has found that 75% of Americans ages 16 and older read a book of any kind in 2012, including books read for school or work. Read More »

Who has home broadband? New data and resources

August 28, 2013

In case you missed it, we just released our latest data on home broadband adoption among American adults:

The report also found that demographic groups with the highest rates of home broadband adoption continue to be college graduates, adults under age 50, and adults living in households earning at least $50,000, as well as whites and adults living in urban or suburban areas. Read More »

  1. For our broadband definition, we asked people who said they used the internet at home the following question: “At home, do you connect to the Internet through a dial-up telephone line, or do you have some other type of connection, such as a DSL-enabled phone line, a cable TV modem, a wireless connection, or a fiber optic connection such as FIOS?”

Our latest research on teens and technology

August 22, 2013

Want to know how many teens use Tumblr? How many friends the average teen has on Facebook? How all that texting affects their writing skills?Teens and tech

If so, you’re in luck—we’ve published several new reports on teens (ages 12-17) and technology over the past few months, with lots of great findings based on our nationally representative surveys as well as insights from in-person focus groups.

Teens, technology, and privacy

Read More »

The science of “the smell of books”

June 19, 2013

“Age appears to be best in four things—old wood best to burn, old wine to drink, old friends to trust, and old authors to read.” (Source)

Discarded Books, Recovered Nostalgia
By Kerry Mansfield. From “Discarded Books, Recovered Nostalgia” – New York Times

Last year I wrote about the smell of books, and the peculiar attachment that even e-book readers often have to that particular physical property. Today I ran across a post on Smithsonian Magazine’s blog that delves deeper into the science behind print’s smell:

As a book ages, the chemical compounds used—the glue, the paper, the ink–begin to break down. And, as they do, they release volatile compounds—the source of the smell. A common smell of old books, says the International League for Antiquarian Booksellers, is a hint of vanilla: “Lignin, which is present in all wood-based paper, is closely related to vanillin. As it breaks down, the lignin grants old books that faint vanilla scent.”

Whether their digital counterparts “smell like burned fuel” (as author Ray Bradbury put it), the bouquet of old books is certainly hard to replicate; the Smithsonian post quotes a scientist involved in a 2009 study describing the smell of old books as “[a] combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness,” sounding more like something you might find in a wine cellar than a library. Read More »

One-third of adults (and half of parents) now own a tablet computer

June 11, 2013

We just released a new report yesterday showing that a third (34%) of all American adults ages 18 and older now own a tablet computer. This includes almost half (49%) of adults ages 35-44 and 50% of parents with minor children living at home.

We have received some questions about how parents are using devices such as tablets and smartphones with their children—a fascinating topic, as parents seem to have a complex relationship with technology and its role in parenting. We know, for instance, that even though parents are more likely to read e-books than adults without minor children at home, the vast majority (81%) of parents say that it is important to them that their children are exposed to print books.

A new report (PDF) by researchers at Northwestern University’s Center on Media and Human Development further explores parents’ views of their children’s media use—specifically parents of children from birth to eight years old. (Here’s a Chicago Tribune summary of the report for time-pressed readers.) Some highlights: Read More »

In a digital age, parents value printed books for their kids

May 28, 2013

Note: This piece is cross-posted on the Pew Research Center’s new blog, Fact Tank. You can follow Fact Tank on Twitter at @FactTank.

Parents who have minor children at home are a relatively tech-savvy group. They are more likely than other adults to have computers, internet access, smartphones, and tablet computers. (This relatively high tech use may be due to the fact that parents with minor children living at home tend to also be younger than other adults.) They are also more likely than adults without children to read e-books.

09 type of books read

But as parents adopt new reading habits for themselves on electronic devices, the data show that print books remain important when it comes to their children. Read More »

Children, libraries, and reading

May 16, 2013

Family Place program, spring 2013, Half Moon Bay Library, Week 2 - San Mateo County Library
Source: San Mateo County Library (Flickr)

As this week is Children’s Book Week, we took a closer look at our data on children and reading from our recent report on parents, children, libraries, and reading. To begin with, most parents read to their children regularly: About half of all parents with children under 12 at home say they read to their child every day, and another quarter say they do so a few times a week. Read More »

Slideshow: Tech trends, library stats, and how teens do research

May 15, 2013

Last week, I gave a presentation at the Westchester Library Association’s annual conference that touched on a lot of our recent findings on library use, as well as a broad overview of technology adoption among adults and teens and a quick look at how teens do research in the digital age.  While all of those topics deserve their own blog post, I wanted to put up the slides from the talk and spotlight the reports that cover these topics in more detail.

We also have a few related reports coming up in the next month or so – including one about how teens and young adults use libraries – so stay tuned!

View the slides here.

Recent reports on teens and young adults:

Read More »

Parents, Children, Libraries, and Reading: Select quotes from parents and library staff

May 01, 2013

In addition to the statistics included in our report, we also asked parents and librarians from around the country about their thoughts on various library services for parents and children. The quotes below are from in-person and online focus groups of library patrons and staff, as well as an online questionnaire of library staff members. More information can be found in the full report.

How parents use libraries

Many of the parents in our in-person focus groups said they were introduced to libraries by their parents or by their schools. In general, they said they had very positive memories of their early library experiences:

“My parents were real big on [the library]. It was a treat for us, twice a week after church . . . You behave, you [get] to go to the library and get a book, get two books if you’re real good, read them that week and bring them back.”

In addition, many parents said they had very positive feelings about their libraries and library staff. However, many often wished that they knew more about what was happening at their library — “there’s so much good stuff going on but no one tells anybody,” one said. Read More »

Updates to our research timeline

April 11, 2013

Curious about what libraries research we’ve done—and what’s up next?

You’re in luck: We’ve updated our research timeline with links to all our libraries-related reports so far, and well as a more detailed description of our upcoming releases. (Our next report, which studies parents and children at libraries, will be out in early May.)

Click here to see the updated timeline, or check out the full list of all our libraries reports and other publications.

You can also sign up for our email alerts in order to be notified of future reports.

“Libraries of the future”

April 04, 2013

Libraries of the Future  - Infographic made this neat infographic based on Kristen Purcell’s keynote address for the 2012 State University of New York Librarians Association Annual Conference last June. In case you want to dig into the data behind the slides, here are some (updated) links to the types of data found in the presentation and infographic:


 Internet and technology use

“What should I read next?”

March 18, 2013

It’s a question that librarians, booksellers, and others have heard often, perhaps even more so at a time when the output and availability of the written word has never been higher. And it’s a question that new book-recommendation sites such as Bookish and BookScout are trying to answer, joining a plethora of communities and services already trying to navigate the tricky task of helping you decide which book to pick up next.

The problem of wading through so many options is not confined to books, of course; Netflix famously challenged developers to improve its movie recommendation engine, Amazon suggests products based on previous purchases, and Pandora builds personalized “radio” stations with tracks it hopes you’ll love.

But when it comes to books, at least, the majority of Americans turn to their friends and family to decide what they’ll read next. According to last year’s e-borrowing report, the majority (64%) of Americans ages 16 and older said they get book recommendations from family members, friends, or co-workers. Another 28% get them from online bookstores or other websites, 23% hear about books from bookstore staff, and 19% get recommendations from librarians or library websites. Read More »

Should libraries shush?

February 06, 2013

Last week, Salon published a piece by Laura Miller entitled “Bring back shushing librarians,” focusing on some of the findings from our recent report on library services. “[T]here’s a lot to be said for that shushing,” Miller writes, adding, “I’ve long believed that one of the most precious resources libraries offer their patrons is simple quiet.”

The piece has sparked a bit of a debate on a couple blogs and in social media about what people want from libraries. So should libraries shush, or not? Read More »

Innovative library services “in the wild”

January 29, 2013

Our new report takes a close look not only at how Americans are using public libraries, but also what sort of services and programming they think libraries should offer — and what they say they would use in the future.

For this last point, we asked about a range of potential offerings, including online “ask a librarian”-type research service, mobile library apps, library kiosks in the community, and pre-loaded e-readers available for checkout. A breakdown of these ideas’ overall popularity is included below; more information is included in the report, and tables with demographic breakdowns for each item can be found in the appendix.


But we also wanted to include illustrations of some of these more innovative services, to see what they look like on the ground. To that end, we’ve collected examples of many of the types of services mentioned in the report, as well as some “fun and funky” services that we’ve seen pop up at libraries across the county. Read More »

Other library links and news around the web

January 25, 2013

While we hope you’ve had a chance to read our new report on library services that just came out this week, there are some other great links out there that you should be sure to check out.

OverDrive statistics

OverDrive released some of its major usage and collection statistics for the past year. In 2012:

Public library use in 2010

IMLS published the results of its 2010 Public Library Survey. Among the findings:

Read More »

Internet access at libraries

December 28, 2012

In a survey this fall, the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project asked whether people had accessed the internet at a library in the previous 12 months. Some 26% of those ages 16 and older said they had.

Our question was designed to include people who used the wired computers at the library and people who had used the library WiFi connection, too.

There were some notable demographic differences in the answers to this question. African-Americans and Latinos were more likely than whites to access the internet at their local library, as were parents of minor children, those under age 50, and those with some college experience. Some of these findings have been covered in a New York Times debate that began on December 27, 2012. Read More »

The smell of books

September 28, 2012

What’s in a smell? A book in any format may read the same, but it seems there’s something about the smell of print that e-books just can’t capture—for now.

Earlier this summer, New York Times tech blogger Nick Bilton wrote about wandering into a West Village bookstore on a visit to New York:

“I immediately felt a sense of nostalgia that I haven’t felt in a long time. The scent of physical books—the paper, the ink, the glue—can conjure up memories of a summer day spent reading on a beach, a fall afternoon in a coffee shop, or an overstuffed chair by a fireplace as rain patters on a windowsill.”

But amidst this nostalgic reverie, he considers the advantages of e-books: their search functionality, ease of transport, the ability to share favorite passages with friends. He leaves the bookstore without buying anything.

Yet for some, the added conveniences of electronic books can never make up for the loss of the physical experience of reading a print book. The author Ray Bradbury famously was never a fan of e-books:

“Those aren’t books. . . .  A computer does not smell. There are two perfumes to a book. If a book is new, it smells great. If a book is old, it smells even better. It smells like ancient Egypt. A book has got to smell.”

According to Bradbury, e-books themselves “smell like burned fuel.” Read More »

Notes from ALA 2012

July 09, 2012

The Rise of E-Reading

In case you missed it: Our director, Lee Rainie, shared findings from our new report on e-book lending at libraries at the 2012 ALA Annual Conference on Sunday, June 24. He also discussed general reading trends, the rise of e-books, and library patrons’ experiences with e-book borrowing. His slides are available here.

(Want to read more? Most of the data in his talk came from our new report, “Libraries, patrons, and e-books,” as well as our previous e-books report, “The rise of e-reading.”)

Lee will also be discussing this material at the ALA Virtual Conference on July 18 starting at 11:45 a.m., EDT.

Digital Differences

I also had a great time discussing our research at a session of the ALA’s Spectrum Leadership Institute on Monday, June 25. We talked about trends in technology access and use among various demographic groups, as well as what these changes might mean for libraries. My slides are available here.

As I mentioned during my talk, senior research specialist Aaron Smith just wrote a new report on “cell mostly” internet users—the 17% of cell phone owners who do most of their online browsing on their phone, rather than a computer or other device. It not only updates our 2011 data, but explores the data in greater detail. Read More »

Libraries, patrons, and e-books: A guide to our new report

July 06, 2012

As you may know, we recently published a big report about e-book lending at libraries. The main headline from the report is that 12% of e-book readers ages 16 and older have borrowed an e-book from the library in the past year. However, another striking finding is that a majority of Americans (including a majority of library card holders) do not know if their library offers e-books for check-out—though the ALA reports that about three-quarters of libraries offer e-book lending. Read More »

E-books aren’t just for e-readers: A deep dive into the data

April 20, 2012

One of my favorite findings in our recent e-reading report was the breakdown of how people read their e-books. While there is a (very understandable) tendency to associate e-books with dedicated e-reading devices, we found that among people who read e-books, just as many read their e-books on a desktop or laptop computer as on an e-book reader like a Kindle or Nook—and more people read e-books on their cell phones than on tablet computers.

Read More »

Do you borrow e-books from your local public library?

April 16, 2012

As you know, we are in the midst of a multi-year study of the changing role of public libraries in the digital age. For our next report, we’re supplementing our usual nationally representative phone surveys with non-scientific, non-representative online surveys. These surveys help us draw out deeper, richer stories about the experiences of library users that can be used to illuminate the findings of our nationally representative surveys. If you check out or download e-books from your local public library, please take the survey below and tell us about your experiences!

The survey will be confidential and we will not share your identity, although your answers may be quoted anonymously in the report. The survey should take about 15 minutes.

[Update: This survey is now closed.] Read More »

Print books vs. e-books: Which is better for what

April 13, 2012

Our recent e-reading report has received a lot of attention over the past week, and one section in particular that seemed to spark conversation was our “print vs. e-books” showdown:

We asked people who read both print books and e-books in the past year which format they thought was better for a variety of situations. We found that people prefer e-books when they need a book quickly, when they want a wide selection, or when they want to read “on-the-go” while commuting or traveling. Print, meanwhile, is the preferred format for “social reading,” such as sharing books with others or reading with a child.

And when it comes to the time-honored tradition of reading in bed? The verdict was split: 45% say e-books are best here, while 43% prefer print. Read More »