Libraries — enduring centers of the community
Pew study shows that even in digital age, they remain beloved havens for books and for ideas
By By David L. Ulin
Los Angeles Times
January 27, 2013 2:00 AM
LOS ANGELES — Perhaps the most groundbreaking aspect of “Library Services in the Digital Age,” the report released this week by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, is how unsurprising its key findings are. Based on “a survey of 2,252 Americans ages 16 and above” conducted between Oct. 15 and Nov. 10 of last year, the Pew report released Tuesday assures us that, even in the digital age, libraries continue to serve a variety of functions, with nearly 60 percent of respondents having had some kind of interaction with a library in the past 12 months, and 91 percent saying that “public libraries are important to their communities.”
These conclusions are in line with another study issued on Tuesday: the Institute of Museum and Library Services’ report “Public Libraries in the United States,” a government overview covering fiscal year 2010, which finds that, despite cuts to staff and resources, as well as a small decrease in library attendance, “visitation still remains strong with an overall 10-year increase of 32.7 percent.”
Both reports echo the American Library Association’s 2011 “State of America’s Libraries Report,” which found circulation up, and indicated that “Americans value the democratic nature of libraries as places that level the playing field for all Americans in the provision of materials free of charge.”
As for the way the Pew numbers break down, the vast majority of patrons (73 percent) still visit libraries to browse the shelves and borrow print books. In contrast, only 26 percent use library computers or WiFi connections to go online.
That’s not to say that digital services are insignificant; 77 percent of those surveyed by Pew said it was “very important” for libraries to provide free access to computers and the Internet, numbers that go up considerably in black (92 percent) and Latino (86 percent) communities.
Nor does it suggest that library users are complacent; a big part of the report deals with “public priorities,” with an emphasis on literacy and curriculum.
“In general,” Pew says, “Americans are most adamant that libraries should devote resources to services for children; over 8 in 10 Americans say that libraries should ‘definitely’ coordinate more closely with local schools in providing resources to kids (85 percent), and a similar number (82 percent) strongly support libraries offering free early literacy programs to help young children prepare for school.”
So what does this mean? For one thing, I’d suggest that it puts the lie to the decline of the library, much like that of the print book. It’s been tempting to see, in the rise of digital culture, some element of historical imperative, but the truth, or so the Pew report suggests, is far more complex.
Yes, respondents would like additional access to e-books, but not at the expense of books on the shelves. They want both, which is, to me, a mark of the world in which we find ourselves, where old and new technologies exist side-by-side.
In that sense, perhaps, the most astute observations here come from the library staff members asked by Pew to comment on the survey and its results.
“We attempt to meet the needs of our community,” one says. “Due to the fact that the needs of the community are very diverse, our services are also diverse. We have made room for many activities at the library such as tutoring, meetings, family gatherings such as wedding showers, study space or just a place to hang out.”
The role of libraries — as it is now and as it has ever been — is as strong as always. Certainly, they are repositories for books, even if (in my least favorite bit of data here) 20 percent of respondents think print titles should be moved “out of public locations to free up space for other activities.”
But more to the point, they are community centers — not just for neighborhoods but also for the community of ideas. Libraries are places where readers and writers can come together, where we can have a conversation, where books and literature are not relegated to the margins but exist, as they ought to, at the very center of public life.
Sure, there are issues facing libraries — insufficient resources, a divide between older and younger patrons — all of which Pew documents. At the same time, it’s hard not to be hopeful in the face of the statistics in this report.
“In my opinion,” argues another librarian, “the idea of connection is what is most important. We are here to help people find their place in the community, provide access to information and services, and help people connect through the stories they love.”