June 25, 2013

Younger Americans’ Library Habits and Expectations

‘Digital natives’ are still bound to printed media

Americans ages 16-29 are heavy technology users, including using computers and internet at libraries. At the same time, the most still read and borrow printed books, and value a mix of traditional and technological library services.

WASHINGTON (June 25, 2013) — Belying the stereotype that younger Americans completely eschew print for digital, those ages 16-29 have wide-ranging media and technology behaviors that straddle the traditional paper-based world of books and digital access to information.

One major surprise in a new report from the Pew Research Center is that even in an age of increasing digital resources, those in this under-30 cohort are more likely than older Americans to use and appreciate libraries as physical spaces – places to study for class, go online, or just hang out.  

The report paints a textured portrait of younger Americans’ sometimes surprising relationships with libraries’ physical and digital resources:

  • Online: Almost all those in the 16-29 age group are online, and they are more likely than older patrons to use libraries’ computer and internet connections, access library websites, and use a library’s research databases.
  • On paper: However, younger Americans are also more likely than older adults to have read a printed book in the past year: 75% of younger Americans have done so, compared with 64% of older adults.
  • On-site: Younger adults are also more likely than their elders to use libraries as quiet study spaces. Moreover, they are just as likely as older adults to have visited libraries, borrowed printed books, and browsed the stacks of books.

This mix of interests is further reflected in younger users’ desires for new library services. Americans ages 16-29 are particularly interested in adding technology-driven features such as apps for accessing library materials and for navigating library spaces, and “Redbox”-style kiosks around town for convenient access to library materials around town.

Still, Americans under age 30 are strong supporters of traditional library services. Large majorities of them say it is “very important” for libraries to have librarians and books for borrowing, and relatively few think that libraries should automate most library services or move most services online. And younger Americans, like older adults, think that print books should have a central place at libraries; only 23% strongly support moving some stacks of books out of public areas to create room for things such as technology centers, meeting rooms, and cultural events.

“Younger Americans’ reading habits and library use are still anchored by the printed page,” said Kathryn Zickuhr, research analyst at the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project and a co-author of the new report about younger Americans’ relationships with libraries. “Some of this stems from the demands of school or work, yet some likely lies in their current personal preferences. And this group’s priorities and expectations for libraries likewise reflect a mix of traditional and technological services.”

These insights emerge in a new analysis of a survey of Americans ages 16 and older when they are asked about their library use and their hopes for the library of the future, which includes a new analysis of three specific age groups: 16-17 year-olds, 18-24 year-olds, and 25-29 year-olds. The findings are based on a survey of 2,252 Americans ages 16 and above between October 15 and November 10, 2012 by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. The surveys were administered on half on landline phones and half on cell phones and were conducted in English and Spanish. The margin of error for the full survey is plus or minus 2.3 percentage points.

A snapshot of younger Americans’ library habits and expectations

Other major findings from the report include:

  • 85% of 16-17 year-olds read at least one print book in the past year, making them significantly more likely to have read a book in this format than any other age group.
  • Younger patrons are significantly more likely than their elders to use libraries as places to sit and read, study, or watch or listen to media; 60% of younger patrons say they go to the library do this, compared with 45% of library visitors ages 30 and older.
  • 67% of younger Americans ages 16-29 say they would be interested in a digital media lab where patrons could create and upload new digital content; some 27% say they would be “very likely” to use such a resource.[1]
  • 44% of library visitors under age 30 have used a library’s computers, internet, or a public WI-FI network, compared with just 27% of those ages 30 and older.

Younger Americans’ priorities for libraries reflect this mix of habits, including various types of brick-and-mortar services as well as digital technologies. Asked about what it is “very important” libraries should offer, for instance, librarians were at the top of the list:

  • 80% of Americans under age 30 say it is “very important” for libraries to have librarians to help people find information they need
  • 76% say it is “very important” for libraries to offer research resources such as free databases
  • 75% say free access to computers and the internet is “very important” for libraries to have
  • 75% say it is “very important” for libraries to offer books for people to borrow
  • 72% say quiet study spaces are “very important”
  • 72% say programs and classes for children and teens are “very important” for libraries to have
  • 71% say it is “very important” for libraries to offer job or career resources

About this research

This report is part of a broader effort by the Pew Internet Project to explore the role libraries play in people’s lives and communities. The research is underwritten by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project is an initiative of the Pew Research Center, a non-profit “fact tank” that provides information on the issues, attitudes, and trends shaping America and the world. The Pew Internet Project explores the impact of the internet on children, families, communities, the work place, schools, health care and civic/political life. The Project is nonpartisan and takes no position on policy issues. Support for the Project is provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts. More information is available at pewinternet.org.




[1] One example of this type of space that has a particular focus on younger patrons is the YOUmedia teen learning spaces (youmedia.org), which are funded by the MacArthur Foundation and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.