As more and more people get their information and do their research online, often from the comfort of their own couches, the future of public libraries seems very much up for the debate these days. Should libraries ship some of their books off to storage facilities and bring in more computers, as the New York Public Library is attempting to do? Should they follow San Antonio’s lead and go bookless altogether? Should we devote more public resources to libraries to renovate them and make them more “relevant,” whatever that actually means, in the digital age? Or should we just say throw in the towel and privatize them all?
The unspoken belief behind those questions is that people don’t really use libraries, that they’re outdated. And it may be true that people use them less now than they once did. But a recent report from Pew Internet says that a little over half of Americans visited a library or a bookmobile in the past year, and what they did there is interesting precisely because it’s not very interesting: they borrowed print books.
According to Pew, 73 percent of people who visited a library in the past year took out books — which, okay, yes, that’s why libraries were built. But with all the talk of the death of print books, it’s nice to know that a clear majority of people still find them useful. An even more heartening statistic is that seventy-three percent of visitors spent time browsing the shelves for books or media. Browsing — something we can do online, too, but with vastly different, inevitably more targeted results. As critic Claire Barliant wrote eloquently in a recent blog post for The New Yorker:
You know the feeling: searching for something specific and stumbling on another book you’ve been curious about, then finding yourself, almost involuntarily, leaning against a wall or sinking onto a footstool, happily giving up the next half hour of your life … The tactile process of pulling out a stack of books and flipping through them is, to me, more stimulating than toggling between the windows open on my Web browser. Even the nomenclature “browser” is worth noting: it removes our agency. The software does the browsing. Not us.
What’s also noteworthy is that 49 percent of respondents said they visited the library just to sit, read, study, or watch or listen to media. They used the library, then, for its other primary purpose: being a quiet public space. Interestingly, the report explains that “African-American and Latino patrons are more likely to say they do this than whites. Those ages 18–29 are especially likely to cite this as a reason for their library visit in the past 12 months, as are urban residents and those living in households earning less than $50,000.” In other words, people who are less likely to have a lot of quiet space of their own value the library as a place to get away.
The news isn’t all completely rosy, though. Only 25 percent of all Americans ages 16 and up visited a library website in the past year, and they weren’t particularly impressed with the results:
In general, focus group members said that their libraries’ websites are useful for finding basic information (hours, location), but a bit of a hassle to navigate for more complicated purposes. Some said that even finding and reserving books could be overly complicated, and others said that the interfaces seemed outdated. There wasn’t much sense that participants wanted their libraries’ websites to be a “community portal” in their own right …
I agree. While I don’t think libraries necessarily need to do a lot of brick-and-mortar work to keep up with the times, many of their websites (at least the ones I’ve visited) could use an overhaul. Entering the digital age isn’t just about installing more computers in the physical space — it’s about having an online presence and building a community. After all, the poll found that people with internet in their homes and tablets and smartphones are the ones visiting the library less, because they can easily do research online. There may be another way to draw those people in, and it may very well be through the tool that’s currently keeping them away.
Overall, though, it seems as though the internet hasn’t affected people’s library usage too much, at least not among the survey respondents. About half of them said they’ve continued visiting the library the same amount for the past five years, while 22 percent say they’ve been visiting less and 26 percent say they’ve been visiting more — so basically, no substantial change. The real challenge would be finding the other just-less-than-half of Americans who haven’t been to a library in the past year and figuring out what it would take to get them in the door.