September 15, 2015

Libraries at the Crossroads

The public is interested in new services and thinks libraries are important to communities

American libraries are buffeted by cross currents. Citizens believe that libraries are important community institutions and profess interest in libraries offering a range of new program possibilities. Yet, even as the public expresses interest in additional library services, there are signs that the share of Americans visiting libraries has edged downward over the past three years, although it is too soon to know whether or not this is a trend.

A new survey from Pew Research Center brings this complex situation into stark relief. Many Americans say they want public libraries to:

  • support local education;
  • serve special constituents such as veterans, active-duty military personnel and immigrants;
  • help local businesses, job seekers and those upgrading their work skills;
  • embrace new technologies such as 3-D printers and provide services to help patrons learn about high-tech gadgetry.

Additionally, two-thirds of Americans (65%) ages 16 and older say that closing their local public library would have a major impact on their community. Low-income Americans, Hispanics and African Americans are more likely than others to say that a library closing would impact their lives and communities.

Public Wants Libraries to Advance Education, Improve Digital Literacy and Serve Key Groups

At the same time, the survey finds that the share of Americans who report using a library has ebbed somewhat over the past several years, though it is too early to identify a definitive national trend. Compared with Pew Research Center surveys from recent years, the current survey finds those 16 and older a bit less likely to say they have visited a library or bookmobile in-person in the past 12 months, visited a library website or used a library’s computers and internet access.

A trend in the other direction is that mobile access to library resources has taken on more prominence. Among those who have used a public library website, 50% accessed it in the past 12 months using a mobile device such as a tablet computer or smartphone – up from 39% in 2012.

These findings highlight how this is a crossroads moment for libraries. The data paint a complex portrait of disruption and aspiration. There are relatively active constituents who hope libraries will maintain valuable legacy functions such as lending printed books. At the same time, there are those who support the idea that libraries should adapt to a world where more and more information lives in digital form, accessible anytime and anywhere.

The big questions: What should happen to the books? What should happen to the buildings?

Growing Public Support for Libraries Moving Some Books and Stacks to Create Space for Community and Tech SpacesTwo key questions highlight the challenge library leaders face. First, what should libraries do with their books? Some 30% of those ages 16 and over think libraries should “definitely” move some print books and stacks out of public locations to free up more space for such things as tech centers, reading rooms, meeting rooms and cultural events; 40% say libraries should “maybe” do that; and 25% say libraries should “definitely not” do that.

Since 2012, there has been an uptick of 10 percentage points in those saying libraries should “definitely” move some books and stacks (20% v. 30%) and an 11-point downtick in those saying that should “definitely not” be done (36% v. 25%).

The second key question is: Should bricks-and-mortar libraries have a smaller physical footprint in their communities? A majority do not think so. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of those ages 16 and over say libraries should “definitely” have more comfortable spaces for reading, working and relaxing. This represents a modest increase in this view since 2012, and it suggests that libraries still occupy a prominent spot in people’s minds as a place to go.

Here are other key findings that highlight the cross currents in public sentiment. They come from a survey of 2,004 Americans ages 16 and older conducted in the spring of 2015.

Large majorities of Americans see libraries as part of the educational ecosystem and as resources for promoting digital and information literacy

Those 16 and older are quite clear that libraries should address the educational needs of their communities at many levels:

People also believe that libraries should offer services to help them master digital technologies:

People’s view on the important role of libraries in education translates into some user behavior at public libraries. Among those who have used a public library website or mobile app in the past 12 months, 42% have used it for research or homework help. For those who have used a public library’s computers or Wi-Fi signal to go online, 60% have used those tools for research or school work.

Many believe libraries should be pathways to economic opportunity, especially when it comes to providing resources for business development, jobs search and enhancing workforce skills

These are new questions that Pew Research Center has not previously asked, and they indicate that there is a notable share of the public interested in a somewhat expanded mission for public libraries to contribute to the economic advancement of people and communities.

  • 52% of all Americans 16 and older say libraries should “definitely” create programs for local businesses or entrepreneurs. Another 35% say libraries should “maybe” do this.
  • 45% say that libraries should “definitely” purchase new digital technologies such as 3-D printers to let people explore how to use them. Another 35% say libraries should “maybe” do this.

At the library itself, economic advancement is a meaningful part of some people’s patronage, but less so now than at earlier times in the Great Recession. Some 23% of those who have paid a visit to a library in the past year did so to look for or apply for a job. This is down from the 36% of patrons who used the library this way in 2012.

In addition, some 14% of those who logged on to the internet using a library’s computer or internet connection in the past year did so to acquire job-related skills or to increase their income. That amounts to 3% of the full population of those ages 16 and older.

Many Americans think closing their local public library would affect their communities, and a third say it would have a major impact on them and their families

Some 65% of all those ages 16 and older say that closing their local public library would have a major impact on their community; another 24% say it would have a minor impact. In addition, 32% say that closing their local public library would have a major impact on them or their family; another 33% say it would have a minor impact.

Civic activists are more likely to use libraries

Community Activists are More Likely to Use LibrariesIn the past year, 23% of Americans ages 16+ say they worked with fellow citizens to address a problem in their community. Among those who have done this:

  • 63% visited the library in the prior year, compared with 40% who had not participated with others in tackling a community problem.
  • 28% attended a meeting at the library in the prior year, compared with 11% who had not worked with others on a community problem.

Some 11% of Americans say they have actively worked with others to influence government policy in the prior year. Among those who did this:

  • 59% paid a visit to the library in the prior year, compared with 44% who had not worked with others in influencing a government policy.
  • 33% had gone to a meeting at the library in the prior year vs. 13% who had not joined with others to influence government.

A majority of Americans say libraries should offer services to help recent immigrants, veterans and active duty military personnel

Many view public libraries as important resources for finding health information and some conduct such searches using libraries’ online access resources

  • 73% of all those ages 16 and over say libraries contribute to people finding the health information they need.
  • 42% of those who have gone online at a library using its computers, internet connections or Wi-Fi have done so for health-related searches. That comes to 10% of the full population of those ages 16 and older.

Lower-income Americans, Hispanics and African Americans are more likely to say that libraries impact their lives and communities than other Americans

There are some segments of the population who especially value the library’s role in their community and lives. In many cases, Americans who live in lower-income households, Hispanics and African Americans say libraries have special roles and should embrace new purposes.

For instance, 48% of all Americans 16 and older say libraries help people find jobs “a lot” or “somewhat,” but certain groups are more likely to say libraries help people find jobs:

  • 58% of Hispanics say libraries help people find jobs (either “a lot” or “somewhat”).
  • 55% of African Americans say this.
  • 53% of those in households with annual incomes under $30,000 say this.

Some 52% of those 16 and older say libraries should “definitely” have programs to help local businesses or entrepreneurs. Higher numbers of some groups embrace that idea:

  • 56% of those in low-income households (with annual incomes under $30,000) say this.
  • 60% of African Americans say libraries should have these kinds of business development programs.
  • 60% of Hispanics say libraries should have such programs.

About a third (32%) of all Americans say closing their local public library would have a major impact on them and their family. Those even more likely to back that idea include:

  • 49% of Hispanics who say such closures would have a major impact on them and their families;
  • 37% of low-income Americans who say this;
  • 35% of African Americans who say this about the possible closure of their local public library.