clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Pew: The Library Holds Its Own in the Information Age

Twenty-five years into this Web thing, Americans remain "highly engaged" with libraries.

Shutterstock / Connel

Wednesday marked the 25th anniversary of Tim Berners-Lee’s proposal for the technical framework that would become the World Wide Web, a ready-made media moment for pondering all the ways it has upended our relationship with information.

But a new report from the Pew Research Center points out that not as much has changed as you might think.

Yes, the promises of that Information Superhighway we heard so much about in the ’90s were kept — and then some. But it turns out the old Route 66 of knowledge, that scenic if slower historic byway, is still holding its own, too. By which, of course, I mean the library.

Among other findings, the Pew report released on Thursday, the topper to three years of research into the changing role of these institutions, notes that library goers aren’t the niche group you might expect. Some 30 percent of Americans ages 16 or older are “highly engaged” with public libraries (falling into the “Library Lovers” and “Information Omnivores” categories), while another 39 percent slot into “medium engagement” groups (“Solid Center” and “Print Traditionalists”).

And, on the whole, these are not your standard neighborhood Luddites.

“A common narrative is that Americans are turning away from libraries because of newer technology, but the data shows that most highly-engaged library users are also highly engaged with new technologies,” Pew informs us.

Libraries are probably keeping pace, at least in part, because the definition of a library itself has changed. Much as newspapers, magazines and book publishers have come to realize — though not nearly quickly enough — thinking of yourself foremost as a purveyor of printed material is a strategic if not fatal mistake in the 21st century.

We’re all in the information business. It’s the consumer who gets to decide on the medium.

The Pew report notes:

In recent years, public libraries have continued to add new technologies and formats to their holdings, with the goal of providing patrons resources in whatever form they prefer. Many libraries have also expanded into community centers, serving as unique gathering places in their towns and cities.

Today, they offer many events and services, and are experimenting with providing the next generation of “expensive and scarce” resources, from 3-D printers to recording studios.

And, of course, they still offer books, the kind with covers and pages and dog-eared corners. While something like half of American adults now own a tablet or e-reader, only 4 percent exclusively read books digitally, Pew found.

“Print books are still central to Americans’ library use, just as they remain central in Americans’ overall reading habits,” the report said.

Because a lot has changed about the way we find, consume and interact with information in the last quarter century — but not everything has.

To see the full report, if for no other reason than to learn what an Information Omnivore is, click here.

This article originally appeared on

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.