Patrons split on how fast libraries should move into the digital age

The word "library" conjures up a very specific image for most people: rows upon rows of books. But as libraries evolve into a place for more digital research, and teach a different kind of literacy, how long should the bookshelves stay?

That's one of the questions the Pew Research Center has asked in a new survey focused on library use - and it got some very divided answers.

Of Americans 16 and older, 30 percent said that libraries should "definitely" move some print books and stacks out of public locations to make way for other resources such as technology centers, meeting rooms and space for cultural events. Nearly just as many, 25 percent, were just as adamant that libraries should not. Forty percent of those surveyed said that libraries should "maybe" do that.

There was much greater consensus, however, on what the role of libraries should be - and it certainly isn't centered on books. Eighty-five percent of those surveyed said libraries should offer early literacy programs for preschool-aged children; the same amount of people said that libraries should work with schools. Technology education for seniors and online privacy and security education were the next two top activities on the list. Other respondents said that they also look to the library for information on finding jobs, or for programs specifically directed at helping groups such as veterans or immigrants.

Yet while patrons want libraries to provide more technology education, it's not as clear that they want the library to be a place where they first interact with new technology. Many libraries have started to install "maker spaces" with 3-D printers as a way to showcase new technology to their patrons, but only 45 percent of those surveyed see those kinds of efforts as something they truly support.

"Libraries' traditional services and 'business model' are valued by many citizens," Pew senior researcher John Horrigan said in a statement. "Yet at the same time, there is a clear public hunger for new programs, more services for key constituencies, and changes in the longtime look and feel of these community spaces."

The report also turned up some interesting statistics about who is using libraries and how frequently. Book borrowing has dropped a bit in the past three years, down to 66 percent from the 73 percent Pew recorded with a similar study in 2012. Patrons are also likelier to get e-books from libraries - 6 percent of Americans have done this, the study said.

And libraries have a greater impact on certain parts of the population, Pew found. When asked how much they would be affected by a library closing, 50 percent of Hispanic respondents said that it would have a "major impact" on them and their families, as compared with 32 percent of all respondents. Among African Americans, that number was 35 percent.

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