The library enjoys a treasured place in American culture. In post-Revolutionary War-era America, public libraries provided information to low- and middle-class Americans who lacked access to literary salons or private book clubs. In the 20th century, libraries opened up new career opportunities for women who did not want to be teachers. Today, college tours traditionally show off magnificent lending institutions to lure starry-eyed prospective students (and that scene of Belle swooning over three floors of stacks in Disney's 1991 Beauty and the Beast continues to capture the hearts of young bookworms).
Libraries nevertheless have, in the past few years, been experiencing short-term declines in attendance. Between 2009 and 2013, library attendance fell 8.2 percent. This drop may be due to the fact that, at the height of the Great Recession, many came to the library to search for jobs, so as conditions improved, that foot traffic decreased. Journalists have also noted that declining revenues primarily due to decreased local government funding and technological change have also played a role. But a new report from Pew suggests that libraries have become even more important information hubs for Americans—especially young ones—in the era of "fake news."
In the report, released Wednesday, Pew finds that the majority of American adults—61 percent—say their decision-making would be improved at least somewhat "if they got training on how to find trustworthy information online." In this bewildering world of real and fake news, a clear majority—78 percent—believe that the library is still providing them with information that is "trustworthy and reliable." It's not just older generations who prefer this more traditional resource: Millennials are more likely to trust the library than all previous generations, including Generation X, Baby Boomers, and the Silent Generation.
Millennials are big fans of their local lending institutions in other ways as well. Eighty-five percent believe the library helps them "learn new things," according to Pew, and 63 percent agree that it helps them "get information that helps them with decisions they have to make"—both higher proportions than any other generation measured. This research aligns with findings from Pew released earlier in the summer: In June, the research center found that Millennials were the most likely generation in America to have visited a library and used a library website in the past few months. Clearly, young adults' constant access to social network news feeds and Amazon hasn't diminished the charm of browsing through the stacks to find the right call number.
A majority of Americans studied say that libraries help them "grow as people" (65 percent) while a minority of Americans agree that libraries help them focus on the most important elements in their lives (49 percent), deal with a busy world (43 percent), and deal with a world where it's hard to get ahead (38 percent). That last figure seems to suggest that most contemporary American library-goers aren't just visiting the library for the quiet place to chill, but for specific information needs.
Overall, people of color, those with less than a high school diploma, and women were more interested in digital training than their white counterparts. Those interested in digital training overlapped with those who believe libraries are important resources: Women, Hispanic Americans, and those with less than a high school degree all reported more trust in and personal attachment to libraries.
The report supports previous findings that libraries are maintaining an important—and evolving—role in their communities in the digital age. The Institute of Museum and Library Services found that, despite short-term drops, by 2013 libraries had experienced a 17.6 percent increase in attendance since the previous decade. A 2013 study from Pew found that 90 percent of Americans still say that the closing of a library would have an "impact" on their local community, with 63 percent saying it would be "major."
Pew's latest report shows that Americans—and especially young adults—are perhaps increasingly valuing their local lending institutions as "fake news" dominates the news cycle. Though Americans' thoughts on where they're getting fake news from are split along partisan lines, a majority are concerned that it is fostering confusion about basic facts. Digital reading material may indeed have reduced foot traffic to libraries in recent years—it may also be prompting more people to stop by now, and in the near future.