Attitudes Toward Public Libraries 2006

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?

3 Responses to “Attitudes Toward Public Libraries 2006”

  1. Angel says:

    Hmm, interesting findings, even with the caveats you point out. The sad thing is from reading much of the biblioblogosphere as well as seeing some news stories, you would get the impression that those places so well appreciated because they provide a community space and check out books are on their way to extinction, the way of the dinosaur unless everyone goes in to use computers, to check out I-Pods, and who knows what other electronic toys and gizmos. If they are not using every single toy that W-2 offers, then those libraries are just on life support and about to get their plug pulled. Not that one should not experiment now and then, but you’d think someone is about to pull up with a wrecking ball to any library who does not employ the latest toys (no matter the funding). At any rate, I know I am very appreciative of my little local county branch. Sure, they do have a lot of good things, but I still go for those books (ok, the graphic novels too). Best, and keep on blogging.

  2. Dave Tyckoson says:


    As you often emphasize, it is books AND computers AND media AND everything else, not OR. What this study says to me is that public libraries are doing a good job meeting their traditional needs and that the communities that they serve appreciate those efforts. Yes, we need to keep up with new technologies, but we should not lose sight of our historic roles (education and entertainment, although I would have thought that the order would have been reversed).

    That the community also appreciates the library as a public space tells us something as well. Even though we are connected in many ways today that did not exist in the past, a public space within the community to visit in person and to see other people similarly engaged in similar education and entertainment purposes is still important. This validates the need to retain the places that we have and expand or build new ones as needed in the future.

    A 70% satisfaction rating for any public agency is tremendous. I would like to see the DMV, the assessor, or the school districts come even close to that number! Public librarians, keep up the good work!

  3. walt says:

    Dave and Angel: Good comments. I’m impressed (in an odd way) by those who find the glass 30% empty… and mildly depressed by the small number of people who seem to think it would be a grand and glorious thing, and somehow likely, for public librarians to no longer be in the physical-book business. But I think that’s a small fringe group.