ALA commissioned a survey of 1000+ adults regarding public libraries, completed in 2006; they’ve done this before (most recently in 2002). The survey’s available (PDF, 13pp.) at ALA’s website, with the questions as asked and the results. (I emphasize that because it’s one way to judge the plausibility of a survey: Were the questions designed to extract specific results?)
It’s not a discouraging set of results, although in some areas public libraries don’t do quite as well as in OCLC’s “Perceptions” online survey. (Maybe people willing to take very long online surveys are bigger library users than people willing to do brief in-person interviews?) Some highlights:
- 37% used public libraries six or more times last year, including 25% 11 or more times; another 29% used public libraries one to five times last year. That’s close enough to Perceptions’ 73% “at least once a year” and 31% “at least monthly.” Any way you cut it, at least two-thirds of adults use their public libraries at least annually (also true in 2002)–and around a quarter of them at least monthly. Those are great numbers for a public institution. (The OCLC study showed 80% holding library cards; for ALA, it was only 63%, a surprising difference.)
- 81% of respondents who visited libraries took out books. People go to libraries for books: That was pretty obvious in the Perceptions study as well. Next highest: Consult a librarian (54%), check availability via computer (50%), use reference resources (45%).
- People mostly use libraries for education and entertainment. When forced to choose one, figure 32% education, 25% entertainment.
- 70% are extremely (26%) or very (44%) satisfied with their public libraries; only 5% are only a little or not at all satisfied. 70% high satisfaction for a tax-funded public good: That’s worth treasuring! (OCLC’s study showed 80% favorable.)
- More than a third of respondents put public library benefits “at the top of the list” of tax-supported services, including schools, parks and roads! (53% put them in the middle.)
- While these are somewhat leading questions, people find lots of things about public libraries very important or somewhat important. Most impressively: services are free (95%), a place where I can learn for a lifetime (94%), provided information for school and work (87%), enhances my education (88%), a source of cultural programs (82%), and a community center (81%). Library as place, library as collection of free books–people appreciate what public libraries have been doing well for a long time.
- As stingy as people can be (18% wouldn’t answer this question), 52% think public libraries should have at least $41 per capita funding, with a surprising 19% putting that at $100 or more. 68% support increased public library funding in their own communities.
- While the statements and benefits are leading enough that I’ll lead you to read them yourself, there’s no question that people appreciate space-related benefits of libraries (84% important for two space-related questions) and the free resources and lifelong learning (96% and 95%).
- “Some people think libraries will no longer exist in the future, because of all of the information available on the internet. Other people think libraries will still be needed despite all of the information available on the internet. Do you think libraries will no longer exist in the future, or do you think they will still be needed?” 92% said “libraries will still be needed.”
According to survey analysis, the more frequent the user, the more satisfied they are with libraries–and use of library services has grown in almost every category, specifically including “taking out books” (the largest increase since the 2002 survey).
My take? Reaching out to new audiences in new ways is wonderful–but if there’s a resources crunch, Sunday hours, evening hours at least two or three days a week, and a strong book budget just might better serve that two-thirds of Americans who use public libraries, who appreciate them as community spaces, who mostly check out books, who do so more now than they did four years ago, and who are willing to pay more for their public libraries.
The usual caveat applies: Lots of people won’t respond to surveys. There’s no way of knowing whether those non-respondents are smarter or dumber, richer or poorer, more or less likely to be library users than those who will respond. But I do think one response to this survey should be: Are you spending enough money on books–and on staying open at the hours people can most conveniently visit you?