In a survey report that has just been released, the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project found that just over half of those surveyed (52%) believe they do not need libraries as much as they used to. But while the survey showed Americans may be split over the essential role of libraries in this age of readily accessible online information, it also showed that libraries remain incredibly popular, and are regarded as vital to their communities.

The latest in a series of research surveys aimed at American libraries, the Pew Research Center Library Services Survey polled 6,224 Americans 16 or older, from July 18-September 30, 2013. And while the results show that Americans still value libraries, it also laid out the emerging fault lines libraries face in the digital age.

Among the survey’s findings:

  • 95% agree that the resources available at public libraries play an important role in giving everyone a chance to succeed.
  • 81% say that public libraries provide many services people would have a hard time finding elsewhere.
  • The percentage of Americans who have recently visited a public library in person, has decreased, while those using a library Web site has risen.
  • Library visits are on the decrease: counting physical and web visits to libraries, 54% of Americans used a public library in the past year, down from 59% in 2012.
  • By a 55%-34% margin, respondents said public libraries have kept up with technological change.

Still, despite the decline in library visits, survey respondents voiced strong support for the role of libraries. Some 90% said the closing of their local public library would have a negative impact on their community, with 63% saying it would have a “major” impact. Some 94% of Americans said that having a public library improves the quality of life in a community. Asked about “the personal impact of a public library closing,” two-thirds (67%) of Americans said it would affect them and their families while 29% who said it would have a major impact.

Kathryn Zickuhr, Research Associate at the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project and lead author of the report said the report was the latest to demonstrate that Americans feel strongly about libraries, even if they are visiting them less. “Even people who don’t rely on public libraries as much in their own lives say they value libraries as important resources for the community at large,” Zickuhr said.

PW columnist Brian Kenney, director of the White Plains (NY) Public Library suggested that the latest Pew data, raises more questions than it provides answers.

"As a perception study, it is reassuring to know that Americans still have a warm and fuzzy feeling about their public library, but information about how they are actually using libraries is limited. Or, even more critically, what they want from libraries in the future," Kenney noted. "This isn't a criticism of the data, just an acknowledgment of its limits."

As a library manager, Kenney said he was somewhat surprised to see such positive data in the report for the 18-29 age demographic. "Traditionally this group, 20-somethings, has the lowest usage and least positive perception of libraries," he noted. "Typically, they rediscover libraries when they have kids of their own, in their 30s. But this data shows them to be stronger users than 16-17 year olds, and on par with older adults."

He also expressed some suprise at the strength of support for adult programming, which was not far from support for youth programming. "I expect youth programming to dwarf what we do for adults," Kenney told PW. "Is this a change? This has been a major initiative of public libraries and ALA in recent years, and I would love to dig deeper into what sort of programs participants are responding to."

Among some of the worrisome numbers, Kenney pointed to the 34% who feel that libraries are not doing a good job keeping up with technology. "What does this mean?" he asked. "Are we not providing hardware and software? Not providing workshops? Are reference staffs not providing decent tech help?"

On the positive side, the survey results certainly show there is a broad base of support for libraries. At the same time, the decline in visits suggest that libraries must ramp up publicity and outreach efforts in their communities, and better market their services, both print and digital.

"I am proud that libraries have earned enormous trust and satisfaction from the American public," said American Library Association (ALA) President Barbara Stripling, in a statement. "The future of libraries is both online and in person—high tech and high touch,” she added. “From children’s storytimes to makerspaces to mobile applications and augmented reality, libraries mix traditional and new services to meet changing community needs. If you haven’t visited your library lately, I invite you to stop by or log on and let us surprise you.”

The report is the latest in a string of library-related research surveys, and is the third of a three-phase effort undertaken by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. The first phase of Pew Research “Libraries, Patrons, and E-books,” was released in June, 2012, and looked at the rise of digital reading. The second “Library Services in the Digital Age,” was released in January, 2013, and examined how libraries are “transitioning their services" in the digital age. The current phase will look at library marketing and consumer perceptions.

The report comes just weeks ahead of the ALA’s annual Midwinter Meeting, set for January 24-28 in Philadelphia. On Sunday, January 26, Pew director Lee Rainie, also the co-author of Networked: The New Social Operating System, is scheduled to discuss the latest survey at ALA Midwinter, from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. in the Pennsylvania Convention Center room 201 B.