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Public Libraries in 2015–A Crossroads Moment

by on December 15, 2015

In an era tinged with skepticism and partisan divisions of one sort or another, there are few institutions Americans fully trust. The public library is the exception. Americans not only believe that their local libraries matter, they also believe the library can be trusted because the information accessed there is reliable. That is one of the key findings of the recently released report by The Pew Research Center, “Libraries At The Crossroads[1], which further concludes that the nation’s public libraries now find themselves  standing at the intersection of “aspiration and disruption”—that place where new vision and change meet.  And while that may sound contradictory, what matters most to Americans with regard to libraries is rooted in a rather old fashioned notion—libraries continue to promote literacy and a love of reading.

New Visions Replace Old Stereotypes
In the Pew 2015 report, Americans said public libraries impact their lives in many ways. Americans are creating new visions about library services and public libraries are responding to their needs.  Traditional stereotypes about libraries are being replaced by new paradigms about libraries and librarians. Library users’ demands have reached an impasse—one group hopes libraries will maintain its rich legacy of printed books, another constituency envisions a virtual library-scape that creates community and tech spaces inside the library building. Like much else in this fast-paced, technology-driven information world, things in the library world are changing, but its direction and focus remain the same: service and information needs.

Americans See Public Libraries As Important Community Anchors
Americans consider libraries to be important community anchors.  2/3 of all Americans believe that closing their local library would have a major impact on their community. The most frequent users—Hispanics—were in a library almost once a week compared to other users’ average of two to three times a month.  No, online help hasn’t replaced the in-person services of a librarian. Although the report sees a continued decline in library usage: 53% of Americans in 2012, 48% in 2013, and 46% in 2014, this is offset by a trend in mobile usage—mobile access to library resources has taken on more prominence and has risen 39% since 2012. In particular, African-Americans, Hispanics and low-income Americans (earning less than $30,000 a year) represent key demographic groups that the public library serves. These groups represent 76% of all library users in the United States.

Americans Want Libraries To Advance Education, Improve Digital Literacy, and Reach Special Needs Groups In the Community
The Pew Research report’s respondents wanted libraries to provide programming and services to the community. Specifically, the public overwhelmingly wanted programs that addressed these needs:

  • Early literacy—85%
  • Resources aligned with local school programs—84%
  • Digital and computer literacy—78%
  • Online security and privacy protection information—76%
  • Services for the military personnel and veterans—74%
  • Reading and Work spaces for patrons—64%
  • Services for immigrants and 1st generation Americans—59%
  • Local business and Entrepreneur programs–52%
  • 3-D Printing Services and Digital Tools—45%
  • Meeting Rooms and Cultural Events—30%

The American Public Library– Not Just About Borrowing Books Anymore
The Pew Research report 2015 suggests that borrowing books seems to remain “the province of the well off and the well educated”—80% of college graduates and 76% of households with incomes over $75,000 still come to the public library to borrow a book when they probably could well afford a latte and bookstore. By contrast, getting help from a librarian seems “the province” of lower household incomes (49%) and African-American (52%) users. The report found that library users come to their local library for a variety of reasons:

  • To find an inviting place “to sit, read, study or watch or listen to media.” Hispanics, African Americans, lower-income Americans, and the young utilize library computers and access the internet more often than other groups.
  • To access research for school and work—60%
  • To check or to send emails—58%.
  • To borrow e-books—e-book usage increased 6% this year as public awareness grows.
  • To seek health information—63%
  • To learn about new technologies—users want to find 3-D printers and digital design programs—70%.
  • To learn about community events and resources—a new role for libraries—an anchor of civic activism—68%.
  • To find out about jobs or pursue job training—73%.

Library users are filing tax returns or enrolling in ESL classes.  Yes, libraries are experiencing a “crossroads moment.”  Library users aren’t coming to their library just to borrow books anymore. The 2015 report determined that “as Americans’ interests in personal enrichment and entertainment are reshaped so have Americans’ library needs.” American libraries, in turn, have provided new services and have reshaped and redesigned library spaces.

Libraries Essential Role–Literacy and Love of Reading
Americans view their local libraries positively and see them as having a special role in learning new job skills and providing services to their community.  The majority of Americans—almost 78%—still values the library’s universal role in promoting literacy and love of reading among people.According to the Pew Center’s 2015 report, libraries continue to enjoy community support.  The Pew Research Report 2015 suggests that the public library stands at a crossroads.  Americans believe in their libraries.  Americans trust their direction.  They will follow their lead.

[1] Horrigan, John R. “Libraries at the Crossroads.” Pew Research Center Internet Science Tech RSS. Pew Research Center, 15 Sept. 2015. Web. 30 Oct. 2015.

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