Rare Book Monthly

Articles - March - 2006 Issue

ALA Study Says Library Use Growing


ALA Study says Library use growing.

By Michael Stillman

The American Library Association issued the results of a study last week which indicates that library use is actually up over the past four years. The results of this survey of 1,003 American adults may be somewhat counterintuitive. The conventional wisdom is that library use is falling in this age of internet communications. Perhaps people who lacked connections at home were being drawn to their libraries as a place where they, too, could tap in. However, as home internet connections become ubiquitous, who needs to go to the library any more? Everything you need is at your fingertips, just a keyboard away.

Apparently, libraries are withstanding this challenge better than many of us may have imagined. I say "apparently," as I cannot personally vouch for the accuracy of this somewhat counterintuitive survey. However, I certainly hope its results are correct, as the library has long played an important role in our communities and the education of our people. The internet may be able to take on some of that role, but certainly not all of it. We will be a poorer people if our libraries can't survive the internet revolution. Here's hoping the ALA survey is right on.

Among the results reported in this survey, it found that two-thirds of adult Americans visited their public libraries last year. I am astonished by that one. I never would have believed it (and am not certain that I yet do). Seven out of ten were either very satisfied or extremely satisfied with their library, a 10% increase from 2002. Such a positive trend is extremely encouraging. Eighty-five percent said that public libraries deserve more funding, with 52% believing $41 or more per person should be spent on them annually (versus the $25 per person in actual support which is provided). Ninety-two percent believe libraries will continue to be needed in the future, despite the internet, while 96% believe libraries perform an important role in enabling everyone to succeed.

The study found increased use of libraries since 2002 across a variety of services. It shows an increase of 14% in borrowing books, 13% in borrowing CDs, videos, and computer software, 7% in consulting with librarians, and 8% in attending cultural events. Sixty-one percent reported using a library computer in some way, for looking through the library's catalogue, connecting to the internet, or writing a school paper or preparing a resume.

Speaking about the report, ALA President Michael Gorman said, "Public libraries are essential components of vibrant and educated communities. There are more than 16,000 public libraries in this country. I encourage everyone to check out his or her local library in person or online."

This is outstanding news, but librarians should not let it make them overconfident. First, I would be concerned that library use may not be quite as great as stated. If a polltaker calls and asks whether you visited a library in the last year, do you want to say "no?" Even if you didn't, you may not want to appear ignorant. As for the public spending, everyone says they want government to spend more on all kinds of good things, but no one wants to pay for it. As the cost of services like police, fire protection, schools, and roads increases, and people get more and more upset with the size of their property tax bills, libraries inevitably seem to get the short shrift. People want to spend more on libraries until they are actually asked to pay for it. Therefore, it is important for librarians to keep working at making their libraries more relevant, more helpful, more enjoyable places to be. They must not only attract older patrons, but young people as well, as they will be the ones who libraries will depend upon as we older folks move on. It sounds like librarians are making some good progress, but it is never time to let your guard down.

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