CULTURE & ARTS

Library Attendance Is Declining. Here’s Why

Many visitors don’t know about the services and programs that are available.

For centuries, libraries have simply been places that house books. This meaning of the word is embedded right within it; the Old French librairie, used in the 14th century, means “collection of books.” An image of dusty stacks comes to mind, but, of course, the form a book can take is changing, and the ways we learn are changing along with it.

A new Pew study highlighting who uses libraries, how frequently they use them, and what they use them for, reflects these developments.

The takeaway highlighted by Pew: People who go to libraries identify as “lifelong learners,” and people who identify as “lifelong learners” are more likely to visit a library than people who do not. A smattering of stats elucidate this point. Library users, for example, are “more likely to pursue personal learning activities,” and “more likely to cite positive impacts from personal learning.”

Learning doesn’t necessarily mean reading books anymore, however. Educational courses, talks and videos are all methods that appeal to a variety of learning types, and reading is only one way to to acquire new knowledge or a new skill. A kinesthetic learner may benefit from a performance, an auditory learner from a talk, a visual learner from a film or book.

To accommodate these different needs -- as well as visitors’ range of income levels -- libraries have expanded their purpose to include community events and free Internet use; however, according to the Pew study, many visitors aren’t aware that these services are available. The survey notes that while 62 percent of libraries offer online career and job-related resources, 38 percent of adults don’t know whether their library offers them. Likewise, 35 percent of libraries offer high school equivalency classes, and nearly half of adults don’t know whether their libraries offer them. The numbers are similar for programs on starting a new business, online programs that certify people who’ve mastered a new skill, and ebook borrowing.

The latter is an especially glaring example of the dissonance between services provided and knowledge of those services. While 90 percent of libraries offer ebook lending, 22 percent of adults say they don’t know whether their library offers ebooks, and 16 percent say their library does not offer ebooks.

This disparity could be due to the fact that ebook reading isn’t quite as popular as predicted; strain from reading on a screen is proven to hinder learning, and print books are actually preferred, even among digital natives.

Still, librarians who’ve poured resources -- and scant funding -- into new initiatives may wince at these numbers. As The Atlantic suggested in a response to the Pew study, it could be that more funding may help librarians attract more attendees, as attendance has declined by 9 percent since 2012. This figure is bolstered by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, which reported an 8.2 percent decrease in in-person visits since a peak in 2009. But, the study notes, virtual visits aren't logged as carefully, so it could be that library-goers -- who statistically are a tech-savvy set -- are more likely to conduct their visits online. 

Still, many of the services provided by libraries are only available in-person, and advertising those services costs money. The Atlantic writer Robinson Meyer observed, “In other words, there’s empirical evidence that usage tracks investment. If libraries receive more public funds, more people use them.”

This makes sense. If libraries are providing the services that visitors want -- learning resources that can be read, viewed, and experienced -- then upping attendance is a matter of getting the word out about exactly what is available.

Libraries have evolved into much more than houses of books, but their original purpose remains intact, and sacred to attendees (in a 2014 study, 55 percent of respondents said losing a library would be a blow to their community). To preserve reading materials, and to promote new ways of learning, would-be visitors must first learn just what a library can be for.

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