There's a whole host of family-based reasons why families are attracted to libraries. —Lee Rainie
SALT LAKE CITY — Parents value libraries as a safe place for children, a source of education and entertainment, a tech hub. They feel great affection for a library's ability to instill a love of reading in young minds, too, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life project.
In fact, 94 percent of parents say libraries are important for their children and 79 percent say "very important," according to the survey of 2,252 Americans 16 and older conducted last fall, including 584 interviews with parents of minor children. "Parents" in the results refers only to those children younger than 18.
The survey found that among all adults, parents are more likely to have library cards, visit the library, use the library website and participate in programs there, said Lee Rainie, who directs the Internet and American Life Project for Pew.
"There's a whole host of family-based reasons why families are attracted to libraries," he said. Parents, they found, "do more things in libraries, are more passionate about things in libraries, and are much more enthusiastic about almost everything at the library than non-parents. Mothers especially are the biggest library enthusiasts of them all."
Nobody loves a public library more than moms. The researchers wrote that, "more than fathers, mothers in many respects are attached to their libraries, feel they are important for their children and communities and eager to see libraries expand and add new tech-related services." Moms are more likely to have a library card, to have visited a library in the last year, to have used the computers and internet access at a library and to have gotten help from librarians, among other things. They are also more likely to read to children every day, 55 percent compared to 45 percent for dads.
Income doesn't really make a difference in the level of enthusiasm parents have for libraries, the survey said.
Such familial fondness for libraries is no surprise to Alison or Miguel Nevarez, who on Tuesday afternoon were happily ensconced in the little round children's room at the Day-Riverside Library while Miguel Jr., 2, immersed himself in a "Train Go" book and his little sister Bella, 8 months, played with soft blocks on the floor.
"We come here three or four times a week," said their dad, Miguel Sr. His wife added, "It's a positive place. When I was little, I loved going to the library."
Sometimes, they ponder the ducks on the nearby riverbank before coming inside. Miguel loves anything about trains or animals. But the library has been more than a diversion for the family. "I applied for jobs on those computers," said Alison Nevarez, indicating a bank of computers where a half dozen people were immersed in various tasks. "And we were married awhile before I got pregnant. I looked at books about it over there," she added, pointing to the nonfiction section.
They borrow activity bags and CDs, books and DVDs. Miguel Sr. believes the library helps socialize his son.
Such enthusiasm doesn't surprise Liesl Johnson, either. She is in charge of children's programs for the Salt Lake Public Library system and has watched families pack in for story times and special programs like Leap into Science. Attendance is always good when various branches offer Saturday morning experiences designed for kids to share with a parent. And a sunny day and an outdoor festival at the library go perfectly together. Cultural festivals are a big draw, both for older kids alone and for families.
The local library is also, sometimes, a haven for children after school, she said. At some branches, kids walk over after school or are dropped off and stay until dinnertime or later, playing games on the computers or working on homework.
In a time when the digital age has forced libraries to rethink what they will offer and be, Johnson said, they've found great success with programs that support and entertain the entire family. Both Chinese New Year celebrations and a magic show were among fairly recent popular draws. But nothing beats story time for parents and their pre-school-age children, she said.
The survey was funded through a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Part of the impetus was that libraries are in transition, rocked by the same digital age that is challenging news outlets, movie studios, record labels and others. The questions all of them face include "In what ways do we change and what do we change to?" Rainie said.
Librarians wonder what they should offer people who don't necessarily have to go to the library to get a book — think digital books, which most libraries also offer — or to look up facts for a book report.
Rainie said the data are interesting and reassuring. "One of the stories of particular interest to librarians in our data is that parents in communities have a special relationship to the institutions and are important voices as they think about what they should become. Getting input from mothers is probably a good thing. They are the biggest fans of libraries."
It is important to note, he said, that mothers are very tech savvy and also social. "Mothers have always been sort of disproportionately involved in using social tools. Mothers have an interesting vantage point, with enthusiasm for technology and enthusiasm for the library."
The survey found that "parents are more likely than other adults to say they would use new library offerings."
Serving the poor
Some findings about lower-income families also stood out, Rainie said. When they were asked what they wanted libraries to be, they were enthusiastic about a variety of services, some tech-based, but it was just as important that libraries continue to anchor communities, to be what Rainie called "precious institutional space."
Lower-income families, he said, are enthusiastic supporters as libraries evolve, "so long as they stay a central place in the community." They also serve as a reliable, but not the only provider, of access to Internet and computers.
Still, income is not a big differentiator of who uses a library or doesn't. Upper-income families are even more likely to have library cards and to borrow books, Rainie said. "Some of the libraries think of that as a paradox. Some of the most enthusiastic patrons have plenty of access, books at home and technology in their lives. But there is no sense in the data that well-off people have stopped thinking libraries are important in their lives."
Among other findings, 7 in 10 parents say their kids have visited the public library in the last year, 87 percent of them to borrow books. More than half who went to the library also went for school work (77 percent of the young visitors 12-17), and just under half borrowed DVDs or CDs, or attended a library event. More than a third went to use the Internet or to socialize with friends.
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