Historically, recessions increase reliance on libraries, far beyond individuals who opt to borrow a book, rather than purchase one. Many patrons "“ particularly minorities and low-income individuals "“ turn to the library in pursuit of employment, whether for a warehouse position or a top-level managerial job, aided by research librarians.

Often, however, it's a library's broadband Internet access that appeals to people who have slow access at home "“ or none at all. According to a recent report by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project, Latinos and blacks, currently the nation's largest minority groups, turn to libraries for Web access, viewing them "very important" to the community. Those groups also value reference librarians, quiet places to study, research resources, and free space for meetings and events.

The difference in how racial and ethnic groups use the library is largely determined by the person's level of income and education, noted Kathryn Zickuhr, leading author of the Pew's report. Education is also an indicator of the services people likely will use in the future, such as phone apps, digital medial labs, and library kiosks, she explained.

Minorities, particularly African-Americans, were more likely than any other group to say they would "very likely" use cell phone apps that allowed them to use library services, echoing earlier reports that show blacks and English-speaking Latinos are the most active mobile phone users.

"Right now, there are not very large differences between racial and ethnic groups when it comes to e-book readings," Zickuhr said. 

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.