The good news for library fans is that, according to a study out today from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, Americans really like public libraries. Some 94 percent of 6,200 people surveyed said that the presence of a public library improves the quality of life in their communities, a level of consensus not generally seen in U.S. public life.
That said, more than half of those surveyed said that people don’t need public libraries in the way they once did because the can get much of the information they need elsewhere, presumably largely online. What, then, are libraries good for?
Books, still. Among those who have used a public library, 81 percent said that for them, access to books and other media is somewhat or very important. Getting the help of librarians is also key, with 76 percent calling service important. Surprisingly, perhaps, only 58 percent said access to the Internet and computer equipment is important to them. Only 33 percent found it "very important," though that number jumps to 56 percent among patrons who don’t have access to technologies at home.
But one finding that jumps out is that a full three-quarters of respondents said that "having a safe, quiet place" is an important service provided at the public library. Some 94 percent said that, generally speaking, the public library is a "welcoming, friendly place," though only 67 percent agreed that their own local library branch is "a nice, pleasant space to be."
The library’s role as a peaceful oasis was important to just 42 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds surveyed, but for a wide swath of respondents, between the ages of 18 and 64, that number jumps to 53 percent, dropping back down to 42 percent for those over the age of 65. Because of the size of the survey’s sample, Pew was able to do demographic breakdowns. The library as quiet space was important to 43 percent of white Americans and 51 percent of Asian Americans, but that response spikes to 71 percent for both African Americans and Hispanic Americans.
The report also finds that, even in the age of the Internet, the public library still carries significant weight as a spot on the map. Some 91 of those surveyed said they can point out the closest library to their home. In a 2011 Newsweek survey, only 71 percent of respondents could identify the vice president of the United States.
Nancy Scola is a lead writer for the Washington Post’s tech blog, The Switch. Scola’s writing on the intersections of technology and politics has been published by The American Prospect, Capital, Columbia Journalism Review, New York, Reuters, Salon, Science Progress, Seed, and other publications.