Keep the Library, Lose the Books

A new survey finds a growing number of people think libraries should swap out print for pixels.

Trinity College Library in Dublin, Ireland (VanderWolf Images / Shutterstock)

Americans love libraries. No, wait, scratch that. Americans love the idea that they love libraries. A new Pew survey published Tuesday finds that while people report feeling strongly about the importance of public libraries in their communities, those people are actually using libraries less and less.

It appears the share of people visiting libraries has “edged downward” over the past three years, though researchers at Pew say it’s still too soon to know for sure that this is a trend. (Incidentally: Women, parents of young children, and people with higher levels of education were all more likely than other groups to have used a library in the past year. Of people who use libraries, Hispanics visit them most frequently, Pew found.)

Overall, perhaps people aren’t visiting libraries as much because their relationship to the printed word, still a library’s core offering, is dramatically changing.

That shift was reflected in Pew’s findings. For example, nearly one-third of respondents who were 16 and older said libraries should “definitely” remove public access to some of their print books and stacks in order to free up space for technology hubs and other more customizable workspaces like reading spaces and meeting rooms. Many more were open to the idea: 40 percent of those surveyed said libraries should “maybe” reconfigure space to include fewer printed books. On top of that, almost half of those surveyed said libraries should “definitely” make 3-D printing technologies available to patrons who want to use them to make their own objects.

What, then, does the library of the future look like? Maybe not as different from today as it sounds. Today’s libraries are already community spaces with rooms full of books and machines—many libraries have printers, copiers, computers, and microfiche terminals. But if the trend in American libraries is toward relative booklessness, when—and how quickly—do print volumes become searchable or downloadable only online? Perhaps the library of the future will consist of five coffee-shop-sized locations spread across a town, instead of one larger, centralized building. These physical spaces would become the main draw of a library; the books people want to check out would all be available to download from anywhere with an Internet connection.

This may be where we’re headed, but it will take time. Even at the Library of Congress, people are still designing the cataloging infrastructure for a fully digitized system—actually getting materials online is a separate and ongoing challenge. At many institutions, changes will likely depend on the actual behaviors of patrons, not just ideas about how a library should be from those who aren’t using libraries as it is. “Even though people strongly believe in the role of libraries in digital inclusion, relatively few library users actually used libraries for this purpose,” Pew wrote of its latest findings. “Just 7 percent say they had taken a class on how to use the internet or computers when asked about their use of the library in the past 12 months.”

And yet 70 percent of respondents said libraries help people learn how to use new technologies—including 31 percent who said they help “a lot” in this regard. Even in libraries where collections of printed books are being culled, at times with dramatic backlash, it’s not as though paper books will disappear overnight. Traditional publishers are still printing, on paper, some 300,000 original titles annually.

This latest Pew survey, then, seems emblematic of a broader disconnect between the way people view the written word and perceive their relationship to it. Consider the cultural space that books occupy: People collect them, tote them, start and never finish them—and sometimes don’t start them at all. People like having books around, whether in print or pixelated; it doesn’t always mean they’ll get through them.

Which mirrors how people see libraries, it seems: A library is a critical institution for the kind of community people say they want to live in, a space where those people could—theoretically, anyway—learn and gather. With or without printed books, and certainly with a smaller collection of them, a library can still be that.