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Pew Study: Public Libraries Still Valuable

by on December 27, 2013

The results of the latest Pew study, released on December 11, suggest that Americans’ usage of public libraries is changing, but the findings are still mostly positive. Conducted between July 18 and September 30, the survey shed light on adults’ perceptions of public libraries and the services they deem most valuable, as well as the impact of libraries on the community. A pdf version can be found here.

The good news for public librarians is that 95% of Americans surveyed state that libraries and their resources are important because they provide everyone with a chance to succeed. Moreover, 81% say they offer services that are not available elsewhere [1]. 90% also state that their community would be affected if their public library were to close, while 63% say this would have a major impact [2]. A very high percentage, 94%, says that public libraries improve their communities’ quality of life [3]. Overall, most respondents feel libraries are responding well to changes in technology[4].

This data provides a compelling snapshot into what exactly Americans like about their libraries. Specific offerings that respondents valued include access to print and digital material, getting personal research assistance from librarians, and a safe, quiet place to spend time. Individuals from a lower socioeconomic status also strongly favored career resources. This demographic, as well as the retired and disabled, was overwhelmingly positive in their perception of today’s libraries and the services they offer  [5].

Physical library usage, however is down slightly from this time last year: 48% versus 53%, respectively[6]. On the flip side, more Americans accessed their library’s website this year than in 2012 [7].

So what does this mean for public librarians? Pew’s results clearly indicate which services Americans hope to see when they visit their community library. Librarians would do well to take these findings to heart and ensure that these needs are being met. For example, patrons seeking a calm and safe place to work away from home would be well served by ample seating and quiet study rooms. Robust collections are still a draw, especially for patrons who are looking to access books and media for free. Libraries in lower income areas should place an emphasize on career training and job-search assistance.

Even the negative findings can be turned into a lesson; yes, in-library use may be dropping, but digital is on the rise. As patrons visit library websites more frequently, librarians should ensure that their sites contain accurate and up-to-date information. Access to downloadable content, including ebooks, audiobooks, and streaming media, through said websites is also a wise investment.


All citations are from Pew Research Center, December 2013, “How Americans value public libraries in their communities.”  

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