The popularity of libraries is surging. The public response to the work of our nation’s libraries is reflected in an increased number of visits. According to a recent Gallup poll, visiting the library is the “most common cultural activity Americans engage in by far.” In 2019, US adults reported taking an average of 10.5 trips to the library, a frequency that exceeded their participation in eight other common leisure activities. Americans attended live music or theatrical events and visited national or historic parks roughly four times a year on average and visited museums and gambling casinos 2.5 times annually.
Public libraries are attracting a cross-section of visitors, including adults in low-income households and young people. For example, US adults aged 18–29 visit the library much more than older age groups.
According to Gallup, “Despite the proliferation of digital-based activities over the past two decades—including digital books, podcasts, streaming entertainment services, and advanced gaming—libraries have endured as a place Americans visit nearly monthly on average. Whether because they offer services like free Wi-Fi, movie rentals, or activities for children, libraries are most utilized by young adults, women, and residents of low-income households.”
Learning and parent engagement
Libraries are embracing their roles in learning and promoting parental engagement in education. Research shows that increased parental involvement reduces or eradicates the literacy gap between children whose mothers have varying levels of education.
DigitalLearn.org offers free courses geared toward users new to computers.
While high-income households can spend more on enrichment activities, public libraries are leveling the playing field by offering free access to collections and programs that bring families together. Parental support helps teenagers improve their interpersonal and decision-making skills and avoid reckless impulses, while public libraries offer enriching programs for all ages that help kids and their parents bond by learning side-by-side. The public library also helps parents avoid social isolation and its potential for depression, which decreases the family’s risk of child behavioral issues and maltreatment.
The Public Library Association (PLA), a division of ALA, is helping libraries capitalize on all these strengths through its family engagement initiatives and training.
Wellness and health
Promoting wellness and helping community members connect to vital health and social services is a growing trend in US public libraries. More than 70% of Americans agree that libraries can assist people who are seeking health information. More than 80% of those looking for diet, nutrition, and fitness information (PDF) online at the library report that they subsequently made changes in their diet and exercise.
Libraries provide a diverse array of health literacy and awareness services for their communities. Public library collections offer materials on healthy lifestyles, cookbooks that address medical dietary needs, multimedia for physical exercise instruction, and self-help mental health materials. Some libraries take healthy lifestyle services even further by offering walking, hiking, bicycling, or running programs that take place outside the library building. Nearly 23% of public libraries host fitness or yoga classes. Independently and with support from PLA’s Libraries Connecting You to Coverage project, hundreds of public libraries are encouraging community members to secure health insurance coverage through information dissemination, education, and partnerships.
Dozens of public libraries are also hiring social work practitioners, interns, or students to address the social service needs of their customers. PLA’s Social Worker Task Force and the training and resources it provides to the public library field are identifying best practices and educating public library staff about such critical issues as trauma-informed care (PDF), serving persons experiencing homelessness, and more.
Public libraries drive economic opportunity for their community members through skill development and small business support. Nearly 90% of public libraries offer digital literacy training (PDF) programs, through which community members can learn résumé development and job searching and gain new skills to aid in career advancement. Nearly half of the more than 16,000 public libraries in the US provide free services for small businesses and entrepreneurs (PDF), from offering access to market-trends databases to hosting business-coaching classes and even providing seed capital through business-plan competitions.
Public libraries are ideal partners in researching new ideas or markets, developing business plans, gaining access to emerging technologies, and learning about intellectual property. PLA helps public libraries increase digital literacy and economic opportunity by creating tools like DigitalLearn for teaching basic computer skills and by developing such initiatives as Libraries Lead with Digital Skills, a 2019 partnership with Grow with Google that provided funding and tools so that hundreds of public libraries could offer programs to help community members develop their skills, careers, and businesses.
The best proof that public libraries are about more than just books is their evolution into libraries of things, offering nontraditional collections that are community-specific and imaginative. The wide array of items available to check out includes mattresses, dolls, bicycles, binoculars, and accordions. At the Beaverton (Oreg.) City Library, patrons can check out kitchenware, outdoor equipment, and games.
Libraries have even delved into the area of beekeeping. The Redwood City (Calif.) Public Library collaborated with the Beekeepers’ Guild of San Mateo and the owner of a local farm, culminating in the installation of two hives on the downtown library’s rooftop. If there is something that can’t be checked out at your public library, it likely hasn’t been invented yet.
The Redwood City (Calif.) Public Library installed two bee hives on the downtown library’s rooftop.