This is Crazy: The Majority of People Use Libraries!

“Libraries are still around?” People ask me while making small talk at dinner parties. Yes. Yes they are. More than half of the people in the United States go to the library! Even if you don’t, it’s almost certain that your friends or family do.

Here is a situation where many people’s common sense does not match the facts; why wouldn’t libraries still be around? People use libraries far more than any other government agency! So let’s briefly examine some of the common sense reasons people give for the demise of libraries:

The Internet: This is the big one. For many, libraries and the world wide web cannot co-exist. After all, if all information is accessible online, why would people ever leave their office-chair/toilet to do anything? Three reasons:

  • First of all, not everything is available online. I actually wrote about this back in 2008. This is not news to those of us who regularly help people with research, though I do understand that a Google search is “good enough” for many basic queries.
  • Second, not everyone has access to computers and/or can afford to connect. This is the commonly known view of the digital divide, but in reality it’s more complicated than that; as access to the web becomes pervasive (as of 09/2016, just 13% of Americans don’t use the internet), the problem of access shifts to a problem of digital literacy. Simply put, many people aren’t very good at understanding computers. In my experience, this encompasses all age groups; younger folks tend to have basic skills but their knowledge is often uncritical and fairly narrow in scope, whereas older folks are often afraid or averse to getting started. This is the true digital divide we’ll be seeing in the coming years. For more on this, I highly recommend Jessamyn West’s insightful talk “The Digital Divide’s Last Mile”, where she divides the Divide into three parts.
  • Finally, consider this: The world wide web burst onto the scene in the early nineties (technically 1990, but really 1993. See: Mosaic browser) and has now been around for almost a quarter-of-a-century. Contrary to the common sense view, during that time library use has actually gone way up! Between 1990 and 2013, library visits have gone up by a whopping 181%*.

“The death of reading”: Despite numerous newspaper articles and outreach efforts on national and local levels asserting otherwise, many people still consider libraries to be nothing more than containers for books. That being the case, when library doomsayers see the business difficulties of big-box bookstores, a shift towards e-books, and (the misapprehension) that reading is on the decline, they naturally conclude that the end is nigh for libraries. This seemingly logical conclusion, however, is more of a knowledge gap than anything else. In fact, they are often very pleasantly surprised to find out about the breadth of library services that go beyond books. This is also the case where e-books are concerned. Libraries were, in reality, early adopters when it came to e-books — fwiw, my local library system was circulating ebooks and audiobooks since at least 2002, well before Amazon released the Kindle in late 2007.

No new taxes: Everyone hates taxes, but some people more so. Some of those same people also have a distaste for government-spending of any kind, including libraries. For them, the demise of libraries is an innate result of the radical cuts that they feel are necessary to bring forth the type of societal balance they envision. While I won’t get into the deep philosophical argument about the role of government and taxes, I will say that the return-on-investment for public libraries is substantial (numerous examples here). But for those who don’t see that return because they don’t personally use libraries, they should note that their taxes also pay for road work on streets they don’t use, and a fire department that they may never need (see: “Common Good”). And maybe this is too obvious, but from a personal finance perspective, libraries save people money.

There are, of course, other common sense thoughts people have about why public libraries are a dying institution. In the end, I must shrug and quote Benjamin Franklin (founder of one of the country’s first subscription libraries), who in his Autobiography wrote: “So convenient a thing to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for every thing one has a mind to do.” As for me, I have the mind to add facts to sense with the hope of making our common knowledge synonymous with the truth.

*NOTE — Upon publication, this said 66%. Reviewing the figures recently, I found that I’d made an error. The percentage of increase in library visits was actually much higher.


Oleg Kagan is a library manager from Los Angeles and co-editor of Inspiring Library Stories, a forthcoming collection of library impact stories.