The public library in Stuttgart, Germany (photo by jwltr/Flickr)

A new survey by the Pew Research Center has found that the 16–29 demographic in the United States reads books and patronizes libraries at rates higher than those exhibited by adults over 30. The results provide something of a counterbalance to the perennial hand-wringing over the alleged role of the internet in diminishing the audience for books or eviscerating the cherished public library. One of the study’s most striking findings is that although older Americans more heavily weight the role of the library in their community, they are slightly less likely than younger demographics to actually have been to the library.

Conversely, younger respondents (16–29) were slightly more likely to agree with the positive contribution of the internet to the organization of knowledge (“The internet makes it much easier to find information today than it was in the past.”) than their older peers. But the difference was of only 6% — from 98% of respondents aged 16–29 to 93% for those over 30. A greater gap was observed between the 30-plus group’s attribution of positive social functions to the library and that of younger Americans (16–29):

  • Only 56% of younger Americans (vs. 73% of those 30+) believed that “Having a public library improves the quality of life in a community.”
  • The gap narrows on the library’s egalitarian merits: 68% of younger Americans (vs. 73% of those 30+) agreed with the following statement: “Free materials plays an important role in giving all a chance to succeed.”

When it came to general library use and the consumption of books in print and electronically, the Pew study found those between 16 and 29 to have library cards at the same rate as the over-30 population (61%), while slightly more Americans aged 16 to 29 had ever been to a library than those aged over 30 (89% to 86%). Those under age 30 are also 9% more likely to report reading books on a weekly basis, with 67% of respondents claiming to have done so against 58% in the over-30 category.

This trend holds true across different chronological parameters — for example, Pew reports that in 2012 and 2013, respectively, 58% then 50% of the 16–29 cohort claimed to have been to a public library in the past year, while the 30-plus group claimed prior year attendance rates in those years of 52% then 47%. While this finding supports the general thesis that younger Americans do go to the library more frequently than older Americans, the study does not account for the drop-off in attendance between those two years observed in both groups.

Another important outside influence, this one accounted for by the study in its breakdown of sub-groups within the under-30 group (16–17, 18–24, 25–29), is the variance in book readership or library usage possibly induced by school assignments. But the trends observed across these sub-groups show that scholastic, collegiate, or post-collegiate status generally results in only slight variations in reading or library-going habits.

The study, published last week, is titled “Younger Americans and Public Libraries,” and is based primarily on data culled from a phone survey of 6,224 Americans carried out in English and Spanish between July 18 and September 30, 2013. It is accessible in full as a PDF on the Pew website.

Mostafa Heddaya is the former managing editor of Hyperallergic.

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