The public library: Historic artifact or adaptive success?

Mar 28, 2013

Since the founding of the first public library in the U.S. in 1731, libraries have provided a conduit to knowledge for the general populace. Toward the end of the last century, however, the Internet dramatically changed how and where we access information. The Web has introduced virtually limitless access to information. With this alternative to traditional print media, public libraries are facing new challenges: online resources allow people instant access to books, magazines, job information and applications, health information and online classes. So how do libraries plan to continue engaging communities? In the face of new technologies, libraries are adapting to a new reality.

Eighty-one percent of American adults use the Internet and almost as many people agree that free computer and internet access (including Wi-Fi) are very important services that libraries offer. In fact, 62 percent of libraries are the sole provider of computers and Wi-Fi for free in their community. Libraries also offer technology assistance, help with social services applications, tutoring and advice for job-seeking patrons.

Over the past decade, public libraries have been increasing in number, but the growth hasn’t kept up with the population. Between 2000 and 2009, public libraries increased by 1.7 percent, but the national population increased by 11.7 percent. Overall, the digital age has ushered in radically changing media on offer at libraries–San Antonio, Texas, for example, is planning to open a public library without books this fall. Instead, it will have computers, tablets, laptops and e-readers with preloaded titles. While the bookless library has been attempted in the U.S. before, in 2002, it didn’t last: patrons eventually asked for actual books.

So how are public libraries currently being used and are they here to stay? This infographic examines the current use of public libraries and challenges to their preeminence as providers (and symbols) of knowledge.


Pew Research Center, “Demographics of Internet Users”, 2012, http://pewinternet.org/Trend-Data-%28Adults%29/Whos-Online.aspx

American Library Association, “State of America’s Libraries Report”, 2012, http://www.ala.org/news/mediapresscenter/americaslibraries/soal2012

Institute of Museum and Library Services, Public Libraries Survey (Fiscal Year 2009), 2011, https://harvester.census.gov/imls/pubs/Publications/pls2009.pdf

NPR, “A Launch of the Bookless Library”, 2013, http://www.npr.org/2013/01/15/169412670/a-new-chapter-a-launch-of-the-bookless-library

For a complete list of sources, please view the infographic.

The public library: Historic artifact or adaptive success

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