Americans’ use of public libraries has fluctuated in recent years, and this survey shows that just under half of all those age 16 and older (48%) say they have visited a public library or bookmobile in person in the prior year. The high-water mark for library visits in Center surveys is 53% in 2012, in the aftermath of the recession when other research showed that visits to libraries for job searches were more prevalent than they are today. The 2015 figure was 44% who had visited a library or bookmobile in the previous 12 months.

Americans with college degrees are especially likely to have visited a public library in the past year (59% have done so), as are women (57%), parents (55%), and 16- to 29-year-olds (55%). Additionally, 52% of blacks and 50% of Americans living in households with annual incomes of $30,000 or less have visited the library in the past year.

The frequency in which library users visit libraries has also remained relatively stable since 2013. Among those who visited libraries in person in the previous year, 30% say they visit several times a month or more – which is comparable to the share of users who visited libraries that frequently in 2013 (31%) and 2015 (28%).

When it comes to accessing library websites, the survey finds that people are somewhat less likely to do this than in the past. Some 27% of respondents age 16 or older used a library’s website in the previous 12 months, down modestly from 31% in 2015. Use of mobile apps to access library resources is not too common among Americans: 8% said they had used public library mobile apps in the past year, compared with 12% who said they had done this in 2015.

For those who do visit public library websites, mobile access plays a large role. Half (49%) of those who have visited a public library website in the past year used handheld mobile devices (such as smartphones or tablets). That is largely unchanged since the spring of 2015, when 50% said this. But it is up from 2012, when 39% of library website users visited using handheld devices.

Two-thirds of library visitors borrow print books; around half go to read, study or engage with media

When asked why they visit public libraries in person, large numbers of library users cite fairly traditional reasons. These include borrowing printed books (64% of library visitors do this, down slightly from the 73% who did in 2012, but similar to the 66% who did so in 2015) or just sitting and reading, studying, or engaging with media (49%, identical to the share who did so in 2012).

Other reasons for visiting libraries have grown more or less popular in recent years. In particular, far fewer library users are visiting libraries in order to get help from librarians: In 2012, 50% of library users had visited a library for this purpose, but that share decreased to 42% in 2015 and to 35% in 2016. On the other hand, 27% of library users have attended classes, programs or lectures at libraries in the last year ­ a 10-point increase from the 17% who did so in 2015. Not a lot of Americans go to their libraries to use 3-D printers or other new tech devices: 13% did this in the previous year, a figure that is not significantly different from 2015.

People use computers and internet connections at libraries for the basics

People also go to libraries to use tech resources. In this survey, 29% of library-using Americans 16 and older said they had gone to libraries to use computers, the internet, or a public Wi-Fi network. (That amounts to 23% of all Americans ages 16 and above.) The library computer user figures are essentially the same as in 2015. In this context, it is worth noting that 7% of all Americans age 16 and older have used libraries’ Wi-Fi signals outside when libraries are closed.

Library users who take advantage of libraries’ computers and internet connections are more likely to be young, black, female, and lower income. Specifically, compared with the 29% of all library users who use computers at the library:

  • 45% of library users between the ages of 16 and 29 used computers, the internet or the library’s Wi-Fi.
  • 42% of black library users used libraries’ computers and internet connections.
  • 35% of those whose annual household incomes are $30,000 or less used these resources.
  • 33% of women used these things at the library.

When using tech resources at the library, most people do research for school or work (61% of library tech users did in the previous 12 months), followed by checking email or sending texts (53%). A share also get health information (38%) and 26% have taken online classes or completed a certification.

Although there have been modest changes in some activities using libraries’ digital resources, there has been a boost in the share of library tech users taking some sort of class or certification online.

Library websites are used for finding available resources or renewing books

For the 27% of people who have used library websites or mobile apps in the past 12 months, searching library catalogues, reserving or placing holds on items, renewing items, or doing research or homework are most prevalent. Here is what those who have used a public library’s websites or apps have done using those tools in the past 12 months:

  • 58% of those who have used library websites in the past 12 months to search a library’s catalogue.
  • 44% of those website users reserved or placed holds on printed books, audiobooks, e-books, CDs or DVDs.
  • 44% conducted research or got homework help.
  • 40% renewed books, DVDs or CDs.
  • 37% used online databases.
  • 31% read book reviews or got book recommendations.