My mother was a public librarian, and in our household, the value of libraries was unquestioned. It was positively programmed into us that libraries were important to society so that everyone could have free access to information.
But, as we all know, just because you believe in something strongly, it doesn’t mean anyone else does.
In our recent study of library users, we asked respondents “Why are public libraries important to you and your community?” Respondents were only allowed to select the one option most important to them. We were surprised by the results:
- 46% - provide public with free access to a wide variety of information
- 27% - opportunities for lifelong learning
- 11% - learning opportunities/resources for children
- 6% - immersion in stories
- 4% - resources to individuals, including research, job seeking
- 3% - place for community to come together
- 3% - other
- 0% - libraries are not that important to me
Turns out, nearly half of regular library users agree with me (and my mother) that the greatest importance of libraries is free access to information for anyone. (Keep in mind, however, that these responses are from regular library users, and are not necessarily reflective of the general public.)
When, in an open-ended follow-up question, respondents were asked why free public access to information was important, they tended to say things like:
“I think public access to information, education and resources is critical to a democracy!!!”
Other comments mentioned that procuring information would be too cost prohibitive, or even not possible, for many people otherwise.
One respondent even thought through the tax implications of libraries, noting that libraries are a:
“No-brainer from an economic point of view -- sharing materials among citizens. Probably the most cost-effective way that our government spends our tax dollars.”
We had open-ended follow-up questions for the other responses as well.
Respondents who chose lifelong learning tended to mention that it keeps you young or active, is good for personal growth, and that it is enjoyable. As one person noted:
“Lifelong learning leads to lifelong improvement. I am a better mother, better wife, better me when I'm challenging my brain and learning about the world as I go.”
Parents of young children, however, were more likely than other respondents to choose learning opportunities/resources for children. While some parents commented that going to the library was an important part of their children’s learning experience, more parents felt that instilling a love of reading or learning in their children was important, as this comment exemplifies:
“I believe that reading and books are crucial to children's development, especially in the technological world we live in. I think instilling in a child a lifelong love for books and learning is crucial and one of my most important jobs as a parent.”
I have to admit to being a little envious of these results, however. I think of museums as the repositories of our humanity, and that, with libraries, they serve the public by sharing access to information, inspiring lifelong learning, and developing children’s minds.
Yet museums are structured, and supported, entirely differently than libraries, with most being nonprofits that do have to charge admission fees. Though we have never asked, I doubt that museum goers would match the fervor of library users in believing museums are crucial for democracy and an informed citizenry. It does beg the question “why not?”
So what do you think? Are museums just as crucial as libraries? Why or why not? To share your thoughts, simply click on “comments” below. (If you are reading this from your e-mail subscription to the blog, please go to our blog's website to add a comment.)