Parents value libraries for their children

The previous section highlights the importance parents place on public libraries for themselves and for their communities and the fact that parents are more likely than other adults to view libraries as important. Given those findings, it is not surprising that parents of minor children view public libraries as very important for their children. Eight in ten (79%) parents say libraries are ‘very important’ and an additional 15% of parents say that public libraries are ‘somewhat important’ for their children.

25 importance of libraries

Among parents of children under 18, mothers are more likely than fathers to say that libraries are ‘very important’ (85% vs. 73%) and those with income of less than $50,000 are more likely than wealthier parents to say libraries are ‘very important’ (86% vs. 73%).  Parents of younger children are more likely than parents of older children to say that libraries are ‘very important’ for their children.  Eighty-four percent of parents whose youngest child is 0-5 years of age say libraries are very important compared to 72% of those whose youngest child is 12-17.  Even looking at the broader age category of children under 12 shows this pattern.  Parents with any child under 12 are more likely than those with only teenagers to say libraries are very important (82% vs. 72%).

26 importance for kids

The most common reason given for the importance parents place on access to public libraries for their children is that libraries instill a love of reading and books and provide resources they cannot get at home.  More than eight in ten parents (84%) say a major reason they view the library as important is that it helps to develop a love of books and reading and 81% say it provides children with information and resources not available at home.  Slightly fewer but still a substantial majority of parents (71%) say the library is important as a safe place for children to be.

27 reasons for importance

Among parents who feel that access to public libraries for their children is important, mothers are more likely than fathers to say that instilling a love of reading and books and access to information are major reasons they feel this way. Parents with income under $50,000 are more likely than those making $50,000 or more to say that all of these are major reasons they feel libraries are important for their children.  Parents of teenagers are more likely than parents of younger children to say that access to information is a major reason they feel libraries are important for their children.  Those with no college education are more likely than parents with at least some college to say that providing a safe place for children to be and providing access to information and resources not available to them at home are major reasons for the importance of libraries.

28 major reasons

Seven in ten (70%) parents of children under 18 report that their child visited a public library in the past 12 months and more than half (55% ) say their child has his/her own library card. Parental reports on the use of the library and child ownership of a library card suggest differences by the child’s age. Children 6-11 seem to be visiting the library the most and are more likely to have a library card than younger children.  Eight in ten (81%) parents whose youngest child is in this middle age category report their child visited the library or bookmobile in the past 12 months, compared with 65% of parents whose youngest is 0-5 years old and 70% of parents who have only teenagers.  Three quarters of parents who youngest child is 6-11 or 12-17 have report their child has their own library card, compared with four in ten parents with a youngest child 0-5 years of age (74%, 76% vs. 39%).

Mothers (74% vs. 64%), older parents (76% vs. 64%), those with higher income (76% vs. 65%), and those with more education (75% vs. 62%) are more likely than others to report their child visited a library or bookmobile in the past 12 months. Older parents, those 40 and over are more likely than parents under 40 to report their child has his/her own library card (72% vs. 42%).

29 library use by children

Parents report similar frequency of library use for their children as for themselves and this use does not differ a great deal by age of the child. Similar to their own use of libraries, about a quarter (24%) of parents say their child visits a library or bookmobile at least once a week or more, another quarter (24%) go several times a month, at least once a month (28%) or less often than once a month (23%).  The frequency with which different age children visit the library, according to their parents, is roughly the same across age groups although parents of teenagers are more likely than other parents to say their child visits the library every day or almost every day (8% vs. 2%).  Parents with less than $50,000 annual income are more likely than other parents to report weekly library visits for their children (33% vs. 15%) as are those with no college education when, compared with to those with at least some college (32% vs. 20%).

30 frequency of children visits

Not surprisingly, the most common reason for children’s library visits, as reported by parents, is to borrow books (87%). Substantially fewer parents but still more than half say their children visit the library to do school work (55%).  Slightly less than half go to borrow DVDs (46%) or to attend events (46%), and roughly one third use the internet (37%), socialize with friends (37%) or participate in a library sponsored book club or program (32%).

The reasons for library visits differ by the age of the child, as might be expected. Parents with teenagers (12-17 year olds) are more likely than parents who only have children under 12 to report library use for school work (77% vs. 33%) and to use the internet (43% vs. 32%).  Parents who only have children under 12  are more likely to say their child uses the library to attend organized activities (51% vs. 40%).

31 childs age

Other demographic differences in children’s use of the public library for these purposes:

  • School research or assignments – older parents are more likely to say their children have visited the public library in the past 12 months for this reason- most likely because their children are older (67% vs. 41%).
  • Use the Internet or computers – lower income parents are more likely to report library use for this purpose (51% vs. 27%) and so are those with no college education (46% vs. 33%).
  • Attend organized activities, events or classes – parents under age 40 (51% vs. 39%) and those with at least some college education (50% vs. 37%) are more likely than others to report their children use the library for this purpose.
  • Socialize with friends – lower income parents are more likely than wealthier parents to report this library use for their children (43% vs. 31%).

Parents’ experiences

In our in-person focus groups, we asked parents to tell us more about how they use the library with their children:

“I have a four-year old and a seven year old so we go take out I guess like the max is like 30 books.  We go then and just take those books out and just pretty much bring them home.  We really don’t stay much at the library.  Just with their age, they’re kind of –  just kind of just want to go wandering around everywhere.  So pretty much we go there and spend some time taking out the books that they want to read and then we just bring them home.  That’s one thing that we do there.  We do rent movies.”

“I go to the library because I do have children and it’s much easier to go there and do homework sometimes. I homeschooled one child with ADD so it helps us to go and be able to have that access to information as well as internet in order for us to work on his studies.”

“[My daughters] take books out.  They do research.  We order our [tickets] to go to like concerts and all that stuff too.  I sometimes do job searches for the neighbors.  I do their resume for them and help them out and to retrieve books . . . The way times are right now, when my daughter wants a book, I can order it [at the library] . . . And the other thing too, what’s nice about the library – like when you use the computer lab, if your book is overdue, you access [the system] . . . so that way I don’t get whacked for like $10 or something.”

Many described the library as a destination for the whole family, with older children using the library’s resources for schoolwork or to surf the web while younger children attended story times and explored new books:

Respondent: A lot of times for school like [my children] need specific articles—like they need more than just one resource for information, so then I’ll take them to the local library . . . if we go, we’re there for hours.  So, I just take my work from the office with me and then they do their research there. . . . Even though we have the internet at home, they still need [to use] an encyclopedia to read books.

Moderator: Do they ever get help from the librarians over there?

Respondent: Yes, they do.  If they have questions and if I can’t answer them, I ask somebody that works here. . . Then my younger children, I take them with me anyway just for the experience because they love books, because I’m always reading to them—so it shows them how many books are in there, and then they can kind of pick and choose the ones that they want to take home.

Moderator: So, they get excited about going.

Respondent: They love it.  They love it.  They love it.

Another parent, a frequent library user, described how she sees the library as a place where she knows that her children can explore the internet, books, and media in a safe context:

Respondent: We go. I mean, my daughter and I go a lot. My older children, they’re not at home anymore but they used to go all the time to do internet stuff because I wouldn’t let them do it at home.

Moderator: Because?

Respondent: I’m not letting a teenage boy use my internet unsupervised. [Laughter] Good reasons. So, I figured at least the library has filters on it and everything else and it’s going to be supervised more. My son would go to go check out his MySpace page and play games and stuff. My older daughter would go to check out movies and books. She’s a voracious reader. My little one who’s six, she goes—and I have a little girl I babysit too and so I’ll take them and they’ll hang out at the library. … [The library has] a kid section with puzzles and a little playhouse there and they have some mind game things. So, they really like to go and play with that. So, we check out books. We check out movies. We check out audio books. I reserve books online, order them from other libraries so I’m using—I’m there a lot. I use the website a lot.

Many focus group participants said that they appreciated the atmosphere of the library in addition to its resources:

Respondent: I go [to the library] frequently for my daughter, because she does a lot of reports. I go to use . . . the computer to get online, do a little research or if I’m looking for jobs or anything of that matter. I would like to use the facility because it’s quiet. She could actually do her reports and do research and check out choices of books as well.

Moderator: She checks out books. You said you use the computers there?

Respondent: Yes.

Moderator: Is that because you’re there with her or do you have Internet access at home?

Respondent: Yes, I do but it’s kind of slow. Theirs is a lot faster. It’s kind of like regularly do two things at once.

One parent said that the library was the only way they could keep up with their daughter’s voracious reading habits:

“My son’s not interested in going to the library, the 12-year-old, but my daughter goes. I mean she wanted to go today actually right after school. I’m like, ‘No, I don’t have time right now.’ But she is this reader and I’m like—I almost can’t just keep buying books for her because she’s done with them in like two days, so it’s kind of silly. We might as well just go check them out and if she doesn’t like it, just return it, whatever. I guess it’s mostly what we use [the library] for now. She loves to do like the reading contest they have so we’ll use their website for that just to kind of see when one is coming up and then right going and register on there.”

However, many parents in our focus groups also mentioned that it was sometimes difficult to know when their local public library would be open, with hours changing due to budget cutbacks. Several said that they would appreciate longer hours so they could spend more time at the library after work:

“I used the library as my daughter was growing up and it was always—you have an agenda. You’re there. You’re researching or you’re looking for something but . . . what’s happened over time here is we’ve reduced the hours, reduced the days that the library is opened. . . . I can’t remember when this branch has got their hours or that branch or what we’re doing and all of a sudden it’s like well, it’s just easier not to mess with it than it is to take note of [the hours] because it just becomes more of an obstacle I guess. . . . It needs to be more dependable.”


Another subject that came up several times in the focus group discussions was how the parents valued the role of their local public library in the larger community. One parent who has a three-year-old son said:

“To me, a library . . . is a necessity. They have lots of things to offer. It’s kind of like home room for your community. If you want to find something out then you just ask. And they have a lot of things that they offer that they don’t advertise.”

Other focus group participants said that they appreciated their relationships with library staff, who were able to recommend specific library books, services, and other resources that the patrons would not have known about otherwise. One mother said that her local library’s staff had known her since she was first pregnant with her children, and were able to suggest things that they though her family might be interested in. “[The library staff] know [your children] by name so as you come in it’s like your children can go right into the library,” she said. “They know what kind of things they like and they’ll kind of hold stuff to like tell your kid ‘we got a new [book]’ or whatever.”

Another mother said that it was helpful when library staff could point out resources she might be interested in, because many times she wouldn’t think to ask about them in the first place:

“If I want to know something, I’d know to ask [the library staff] questions, but I’m not going to always know what questions to ask because I’m not going to always know what information I can ask about. . . . [An activity] might not necessarily be posted, and if it’s not posted, how would you know to [ask]?”

Some parents in our focus groups said that for their children, “libraries are just as common [a] request to go to as the mall.” Other parents agreed that it was good to have a place where children could socialize—within limits:

“They still have to behave themselves. [Library staff] still make them behave themselves if they’re old enough to be on their own, but it’s very family-friendly and you need that when you have children. You need to have that kind of an atmosphere, that kind of place area for them to go, [where] if they do speak out loud, nobody’s going to freak out.”


Several parents in our focus groups said that they wanted their children to use the library so that they could learn about personal responsibility, as well as how to act appropriately in public spaces:

“I try to teach my son . . . that [the library] is the quiet place. This is where you’re respectful of the things, you’re respectful of the people reading their stories, they’re reading or they’re doing homework or whatever the case is.”

Some viewed a child’s first library card as a rite of passage. “[Going to the library gives children] a little more responsibility,” one parent said,  “especially when they fill out that application and get their own library card in their own name—it makes them feel like ‘I’m grown now.’” Another parent had a similar story:

Respondent: …my children have been excited about the library since like about three or four.  That was something that we set up like a goal for them that as soon as they can learn how to write their full name, they can get their own library card so they were so excited to be able to walk up and write their name on the card.  Once they were able to do that, then they realized like they can check out their own movies, they can check out books.  So like yeah, that’s their thing now.  They’ll get on the computer and try to reserve stuff like “Mommy, I’ve got a movie due at the library, can you take me?”.  You know, they call and say that my stuff is ready [so they would] write down the home number to wait for the call from the library.”

Moderator: “They feel they’re kind of grown up that they have this card.”

Respondent:  “Yes, because like my son had a sleepover over the summer and he had like about four boys over and he’s like, ‘I get to use my card and we can just pick out, pick out any movie we want. I can use my own card.’”

One focus group participant said that libraries taught children an important lesson in sharing:

“I think it also gives them a sense of community because that book, that you know you have that set time that you have to bring it back . . . My daughter just loves this book, the Hungry Caterpillar. . . . Every time [we go to the library], she doesn’t care if she has 20 books, she has to have like the Hungry Caterpillar in it. And I’m like, ‘But what about the other little children who need to have the chance of loving the story too? If you always have it, how’s anybody else going to love it?’ . . . So it’s like you have to teach them like there’s other children waiting for this book—we have to be responsible—you have to write that date down because somebody has already called and said, like ‘Susie is waiting for the book.’  You have to take it back.”

Due dates and late fees offer another potential lesson, the parent continued. “If their book is late, I don’t pay fees. You pay your own . . . You have to pay [the late fees] and you have to know when your due date is due.”


However, even as they appreciated the library’s role as a social meeting space, several parents had concerns about safety at the library:

“Have you been [at the library] after the children get dropped off to school? . . . Sometimes the children would just loiter and there’s a lot of issues with some children. I always caught [some of them] bullying, talking using bad language, and children and other children and parents . . . walking in and they were just not ready or equipped to be able to handle that. So there are issues that do need to be addressed [in order] to make sure that it stays the safe, family-friendly place that it’s supposed to be.”

Some parents wished that their children could have the same relationship with the library that they had when they were younger, when the library was considered a safer place:

“The closer it is to you, the more you are inclined to go. . . . If it’s going to take 20 minutes to walk there, then you’re not as inclined to go. Living in a bedroom community where you drive everywhere—I grew up in the city so I [could] walk to most things, but I can’t say to my daughter, ‘Just walk to the library.’ So, it takes away some of that independence that she can have of me sending her to a safe place. It has to be around my [schedule]. So, I think that . . . even if [libraries] were smaller but just a little bit more within every 10 blocks or something like that, that you could get to walk [there].”