The debate over whether public libraries are on their way to becoming obsolete has heated up in recent years. Can these institutions survive, some have wondered, when such a wealth of information is easily accessible online? But in the United States, at least, libraries remain very much in use. Per a new Gallup poll, visiting the library was “by far” the most common cultural activity among Americans in 2019.
Based on telephone interviews conducted in December of last year, the poll includes a sample of 1,025 adults across all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Gallup asked participants how many times they had engaged in nine different leisure activities over the past year. Going to the library was the clear winner, averaging 10.5 trips. Seeing a movie at the theater was the second-most common activity, with an average of 5.3 visits, followed by attending a live sporting event, with 4.7 visits. At the bottom of the list was going to the zoo, which averaged just 0.9 visits.
These latest figures represent a follow-up to a survey conducted in December 2001. Overall rankings, according to Justin McCarthy of Gallup, were by and large the same, suggesting libraries are as popular now as they were at the turn of the millennium. Trips to the movies decreased slightly (down an average of 1.3 visits), while reported trips to museums, live music or theatrical events, and national or historic parks experienced a small uptick (up 0.7, 1.1 and 1.3 average visits, respectively).
Cost seems to be a key factor driving these trends. Visiting the library is free, as are the variety of services libraries offer, including Wi-Fi. In fact, a Pew Research Center study conducted in 2016 found that while most respondents visited libraries to borrow books, 29 percent of library-going Americans over the age of 16 went to use computers, the internet or a public Wi-Fi network.
Activities that tend to be pricey—like going to a casino, visiting an amusement or theme park, and going to the zoo—lingered at the bottom of Gallop’s list. Indeed, the new survey found that libraries are “visited most by adults in low-income households and least by adults in high-income households.” The largest gap between high- and low-income households were in reports of going to a live sporting event, a live music or theater event, or the movies—“all things often associated with significant ticket prices,” McCarthy notes.
People between the ages of 30 and 49 reported the highest rates of leisure activities, perhaps reflecting “their relative youth combined with mid-life financial stability,” according to McCarthy. But the youngest age bracket—covering 18- to 29-year-olds—visited the library the most, possibly because this group included college students. The 18-29 bracket also visited casinos more than any other age group.
While finances appear to be an important driver in Americans’ choice of cultural activities, personal interest may also play a role in how people opt to spend their leisure time. For instance, though men and women reported doing most activities at the same rate, women visited the library nearly twice as much as their male counterparts (13.4 visits, on average, compared to 7.5 visits). Men, on the other hand, were more likely to attend casinos, go to sporting events and visit national or historic parks. Having children also seemed to influence activity choice in certain cases. Adults with children in the household, for instance, were more likely to go to the movies than those without kids in the home (6.8 versus 4.7 average visits, respectively).
The survey offers heartening evidence that however people are using libraries today—be it to read, research or surf the internet—these much-loved institutions remain an important fixture in communities across the country.