No such thing as too early to start the library habit

Child on computer

Government statistics show importance of childhood in starting life-long use of public libraries

Along with the most recent Taking Part statistics – looking at use of leisure, culture and sport in England – the Department of Culture Media & Sport have published more in-depth, longitudinal reports into public library use.

Taking Part, focus on libraries report provides details about library use and satisfaction while Taking part, focus on cross-sector participation examines participation across arts, libraries, heritage, museums, galleries and sport.

In summary, the reports show that:

  • Childhood is a critical age – it’s the time most people start a life-long habit of using libraries and adults who live with children are motivated to use the library to encourage them to read. 
  • While overall visits and book borrowing have declined, this is in a context of building closures, staff cuts and budget reductions, and satisfaction levels remain high.
  • The quality and choice of books and resources is the most important factor affecting satisfaction levels.
  • The importance of libraries as a place for lifelong learning is gaining ground.
  • A significantly highly proportion of adults from black and minority ethnic (BME) groups use libraries more than adults from white ethnic groups.

The library habit

Adults who went to the library themselves when they were growing up were more likely to go to the library as adults. 82.2 % of adults who had used a library in the last 12 months had used a library when growing up.

This is a high figure and suggests a closer look at the various “Library card at birth” initiatives which have attempted to reduce or remove this barrier to library use. The most recent in England reported in 2014. The main finding was that although issuing a library card is not on its own enough to develop active library users it is an important first step.

Scotland piloted automatic child membership last year and Wales has the Every child a library member initiative


A significantly higher proportion of adults from the black and minority ethnic groups used a library in the year ending September 2015 than adults from the white ethnic group (49.3 % compared with 31.8%) Although there has been a significant decline in both groups since 2005/06 the gap between ethnic groups appears to be increasing. The gap was 10.3 percentage points between the two groups, in the latest year there was a difference of 17.5 percentage points.

Lifelong learners

A significantly higher proportion of non working adults who used the library in the past 12 months used it for academic study than working adults (11.3% compared with 8.2%).

A significantly higher proportion of adults from the black and minority ethnic group used it for academic study than adults from the white ethnic group (20.2% compared to 7.5%).

Recent research from the USA [1]  shows library users embracing the idea that the public library is a place for learning. 97% of those who used a library or bookmobile in the past 12 months say that the term “lifelong learner” applies “very well” or “pretty well” to them and a similar share of library website users (98%) also strongly identified with being lifelong learners. 76% of adults said libraries serve the learning and educational needs of their communities either “very well” (37%) or “pretty well” (39%).

There were no significant differences in the use of the public library services between working adults and non working adults or between adults from the white ethnic group and adults from the black and minority ethnic group.

The children factor

Adults who live with children are significantly more likely to use the public library service than adults who do not live with children. In fact the main reason for using libraries more often was “to encourage my child to read books” (Reported by 20% of adults who reported using the library more often). 

Free time

Those who reported a change in the frequency of their library use over a period of 2-3 years were asked why they used the library more or less often. 15% saying they had used the library more simply had more free time. The most common reason for a decline in library use was “having less free time”. Having more time could include the non working - who use the library significantly more than the working - or the recently retired.

How much free time we have is a real calculable value but can it also be a perception? How many people visiting a public library view it as a leisure pursuit, in competition for limited free time, and how many as a necessity? The question of free time also raises questions about how effective libraries currently are at providing relevant services to people with little free time, for example ebook lending and an effective digital presence.  

What other cultural sectors do library users use the most?

The new Venn diagrams offer an interesting insight into the connections and correlations between the engagement with libraries and engagement with other cultural sectors. The strongest connections libraries have are with the Arts sector and the Heritage sector. Library users engage with those cultural sectors more than with sport, archives and museums. 

Internet Access

There is now free Wi-Fi access in 99.2% of English public libraries, an impressive increase from 72% in March 2015.

But it is free internet access that is an issue for those who do not own their own laptops or devices. The Libraries Taskforce are exploring how libraries could most effectively loan a variety of digital devices, by bringing together those who are actively loaning, or exploring loaning these devices. This is an important strand in the digital inclusion agenda given the recent report from the Tinder Foundation [2] suggesting that access to a device in the home is a factor in the quicker progression of people participating in digital skills training. This was identified in an early Oxford Internet Survey by OxIS from 2011 [3].

A good experience?

94.2 % of adults who had used a library were very satisfied or fairly satisfied (an increase from 92.5% in 2010/11 when the question was first asked). The most common reason for dissatisfaction was choice and condition of resources. In 2008-09 total expenditure of English public libraries on materials (Books, periodicals, music, DVDs, online electronic etc.) was £106,729,943 [4]. The figure for 2013-14 was £82,132,929 [5]. Although this has to be viewed alongside the reduced number of libraries this still represents a significant drop. 

So, while public libraries continue to diversify and innovate to meet the needs of their users how do we make sure this is not to the detriment of what makes libraries unique? “Adequate stocks...of books and other printed matter... sufficient in number, range and quality to meet the general requirements and any special requirements both of adults and children [6] available free of charge.


Image source: "classroom-laptops-computers-boy.jpg" by r. nial bradshaw, used under a CC BY 2.0 license / original cropped and resized

  1. Raine, L. (April, 2016). Libraries and learning. [pdf]. Pew Research Centre. Available at [Accessed 18 Apr. 2016].
  2. Piercy, L. (Tinder Foundation). (2016). Digital skills for the hardest to reach: Literature review. Reboot UK. Available at http://www.tinderfoundation.or... [Accessed 29 Apr. 2016].
  3. Dutton, W. H. and Blank, G. (2011). Next generation users: The internet in Britain. Oxford Internet Institute. Available at  [Accessed 29 Apr. 2016].
  4. CIPFA (August 2010). Public Library Statistics 2009-10 Estimates & 2008-2009 Actuals. 
  5. CIPFA (December 2015). Public Library Statistics 2015-16 Estimates & 2014-15 Actuals. 
  6. Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964


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