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Not dead yet: Libraries still vital, Pew report finds

January 22, 2013|By David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times Book Critic
  • Organizing the bookshelves at the Los Angeles Public Library.
Organizing the bookshelves at the Los Angeles Public Library. (Arkasha Stevenson/Los…)

Perhaps the most groundbreaking aspect of “Library Services in the Digital Age,” the report released today by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project is how non-groundbreaking its findings are.

Based on “a survey of 2,252 Americans ages 16 and above” conducted between October 15 and November 10 of last year, the Pew report assures us that, even in the digital age, libraries continue to serve a variety of functions, with nearly 60% of respondents having had some kind of interaction with a library in the last 12 months, and 91% saying that “public libraries are important to their communities.”

As for the way these numbers break down, the vast majority of patrons (73%) still visit libraries to browse the shelves and borrow print books. In contrast, only 26% use library computers or WiFi connections to go online.

That’s not to say that digital services are insignificant; 77% 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%) and Latino (86%) 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 avers, “Americans are most adamant that libraries should devote resources to services for children; over eight in ten Americans say that libraries should ‘definitely’ coordinate more closely with local schools in providing resources to kids (85%), and a similar number (82%) strongly support libraries offering free early literacy programs to help young children prepare for school.”

So what does this mean? Well, for one thing, I’d suggest, 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. Certainly, they are repositories for books, even if (in my least favorite bit of data here) 20% 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.”

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