Do libraries matter? 94 percent of Americans say libraries make life better

In a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, 54 percent of respondents said libraries aren't as necessary as they once were when it comes to finding information. However, 94 percent said a library improves a community's quality of life.

Michael Penn/Juneau Empire/AP
Sandy Parnell, first lady of Alaska, reads to children during the Downtown Public Library's story time in Juneau, Alaska.

A plurality of Americans may not regularly use their local library – but they strongly value the role of the public library nonetheless.

That’s according to a new report by Pew Research Center that surveyed Americans on their use of and attitudes toward the public library.

During the past year some 54 percent of respondents used a public library – down from 59 percent in 2012. But the majority of respondents – 94 percent – said having a public library improves the quality of life in a community. And 90 percent said that if their local public library closed, it would have an impact on their community, with 63 percent saying it would have a “major” impact.

“Throughout our work, we've found that Americans value public libraries not only for the access to information they offer through books, databases, and internet connections, but also their assistance in finding and navigating the increasing amount of information that is available,” said Kathryn Zickuhr, research associate at the Pew Research Center's Internet Project, in the survey summary. “And even people who don't rely on public libraries as much in their own lives say they value libraries as important resources for the community at large.”

Additional findings from the survey reveal the social impact of libraries in providing services to all members of a community:

• 95 percent of Americans agree that materials and resources available at public libraries play an important role in giving everyone a chance to succeed

• 95 percent say public libraries are important because they promote literacy and a love of reading

• 81 percent say public libraries provide services people would have a hard time finding elsewhere

Additionally, the survey found that libraries are especially important to certain groups of people, including unemployed, retired, and disabled people, as well as women, African Americans, Hispanics, and adults who live in lower-income households and with lower levels of educational attainment.

But according to the survey, Americans are split on whether libraries are as essential as they once were in the past for finding information: 

• 52 percent of Americans say people do not need public libraries as much as they used to because they can find most information on their own (46 percent disagreed)

• 34 percent of respondents said public libraries have not done a good job keeping up with new technologies (55 percent disagreed)

Among the library’s most used or important services, according to respondents, are books and media, librarian assistance, having a quiet/safe place, and research resources. Among its less-used or less important resources are help finding and applying for a job, help applying for government services, and programs for adults, according to survey responses.

Based on the survey findings, we think libraries can improve in some ways, including upgrading technology or helping patrons navigate digital offerings. Overall, libraries can also better inform patrons about services offered. Last year, staff writer Molly Driscoll reported on a 2012 Pew survey finding that a majority of library patrons were unaware of e-book offerings.

Nonetheless, at a time when even bestselling authors have questioned the value of libraries, calling them “no longer relevant,” the good news is that a whopping 94 percent of survey respondents said public libraries are a “welcoming, friendly place” and 94 percent also said having a public library nearby improved the quality of life in a community.

That’s a sentiment we’re behind 100 percent.

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