To me, the question “Are libraries going extinct” is actually a very silly question. All I have to do is walk into my public library and I can see that the computers are filled with students doing homework and adults searching for jobs. Songs and laughter are coming from the story time room. There is a line at the front desk and returned books are piling up on the counter, the workers being too busy at the moment to check them in. Still, it’s worth looking at the numbers to settle this debate once and for all.
My local library publishes an annual report breaking down its sources of revenue, its expenses, its circulation numbers, and more. I imagine that most, if not all, public libraries have such a report that they also make available to the public. A quick glance at the 2016 report shows me that about 60% of my city’s residents actively hold a card (meaning they renewed it within the past year). To me, that number is not shabby, especially considering that some families only use one card for every member. Over half the city has been to the library in the past year!
Of course, my library might not be representative of the library usage of the U.S. as a whole. But the Pew Research Center collects statistics on library usage and attitudes towards libraries every year. In 2016, they found that 46% of adults had been to the library in the past year and that Millenials (53%) were more likely than any other generation to have been to the library. Of those 16 and under, 48% had used the library or a bookmobile in the past year. Though the numbers do not pass the halfway mark, they are hardly indicators that libraries are facing imminent closure.
Still, I won’t deny that I would like to see these numbers climb higher. After all, libraries provide so much more than books these days and they are especially important in providing access to the Internet and other resources that many take for granted. (In 2016, 35% of people with an income under $30,000 used the library computers or Internet–a resource many of us can’t imagine living without.) In thinking about libraries, we have to remember that they are there to serve the community and promote equity. If people are not using them, perhaps we have to find more effective ways of explaining and promoting the resources they provide. I have met far too many children AND adults who come to the library believing that they have to pay to borrow materials or even possess a card to walk in the door!
Policy makers and those who control the tax dollars for libraries should also remember this: Although only 46% of adults may have been to the library in 2016, a large number of library users are there because they cannot afford books, music, DVDs, Internet, or laptops on their own. They are there because they cannot complete their schoolwork, apply to jobs, learn a language or a job-related skill, get their pay stubs, or connect through social media in any other way. These people need the library, even if the policy makers don’t. The Pew Research Center provides more pertinent data:
When using tech resources at the library, most people do research for school or work (61% of library tech users did in the previous 12 months), followed by checking email or sending texts (53%). A share also get health information (38%) and 26% have taken online classes or completed a certification.
Closing the library would put all these patrons at an even greater disadvantage. How would they earn good grades, apply to colleges, apply for health care, or get a job without the Internet? The reality in today’s world is that they probably could not, at least not as easily or effectively. And each struggle would make the next one harder. Poor grades in high school from not being able to do research would mean fewer colleges to choose from. No Internet to research colleges and financial aid would give someone even fewer opportunities. Going to a college without the major one wants or to one not highly ranked in the person’s field would then potentially limit their job opportunities. Ending library access would create a cycle from which it would be increasingly difficult to escape. And yet some maintain that libraries are no longer needed.
I don’t think the numbers indicate that “no one” uses libraries anymore. However, even if the numbers were lower, I would not advocate closing libraries but, rather, rethinking them and marketing them more effectively. They are there to provide services to the community, to promote equity and access. Their value is ultimately one that can’t be explained only in numbers.