The Continued Importance of Brick-and-Mortar Libraries

If the last 14 years’ worth of projects nominated for the Evy Nordley Award for Best Project by Friends of the Library is any indication, Friends groups in Minnesota dedicate a tremendous amount of time, labor and money to enhancing the library as a physical space. Whether it’s installing new bookshelves, fundraising for new pipes or a new roof, or simply volunteering to help with routine custodial services, it is clear that Friends place a high value on the brick-and-mortar public libraries.

They are not alone – and such efforts are appreciated, according to a recent PEW study entitled “Library Services in the Digital Age.”

Last fall, researchers conducted 2,252 phone interviews with a representative sampling of Americans aged 16 and up. Each was asked a number of questions regarding his or her library usage habits. As the name of the study suggests, many lines of inquiry focused on the existence and growth of public libraries’ digital services: ebooks, free Internet access, and the like.

In broad brushstrokes, PEW determined that, while these digital offerings are incredibly important to many library patrons – and are likely to become even more so in the future – there is still a strong need and desire for more “traditional” library services.

Of the survey sample, a full 53% reported having visited a library (or bookmobile) in person in the last 12 months. And, of that 53%...

  • 73% say they visit to borrow print books
  • 73% say they visit to browse the shelves for books or media
  • 49% say they visit to sit, read, and study, or watch/listen to media
  • 41% say they visit to attend or bring a younger person to a class, program, or event designed for children or teens
  • 40% say they visit to borrow a DVD or videotape of a movie or TV show
  • 31% say they visit to read or check out printed magazines or newspapers
  • 23% say they visit to attend a meeting of a group to which they belong
  • 21% say they visit to attend a class, program, or lecture for adults
  • 16% say they visit to borrow a (physical) music CD

Clearly, for all of the activities listed above, the physical space of the library is an important consideration.

Moreover, the thrust of these general findings – i.e., new media and technology playing a pivotal role alongside, yet not displacing, books and traditional library services – reflects what library staff in Minnesota are seeing “on the ground” every day.

Said Kit Hadley, director of the St. Paul Public Library, in a recent Minnesota Public Radio discussion on the topic: “There is no question that over the years, the brand of libraries has been books. There have been some perception surveys done, and there’s no question: people hear library, they hear books.” 

Click here for PEW’s summary of the project and its findings. Click here for the unabridged document. To hear Kit Hadley's thoughts on the subject in the Feb. 18 The Daily Circuit (MPR) interview cited above, click here.