Andrew Carnegie called libraries “palaces for the people.” The 19th-century industrialist funded 2,509 such structures — including 23 in Utah — supporting literacy and culture in small towns and underserved communities. He scarcely could have imagined how libraries have transformed in recent years, embracing new roles as Americans spend less time reading and more time staring at screens. Perhaps we should be heartened that they’re still around at all, but the romantic notion of these quiet repositories of knowledge stacked to the brim with books is largely a thing of the past. How are libraries changing, and why? Here’s the breakdown:


Billions served

Americans visited the library a whopping 1.59 billion times in 2009. That was the peak of a sort of golden age, a robust 35 percent increase over library visits in 1992. But numbers have been falling steadily ever since, reaching a 21 percent decline by 2019 — before the pandemic. Today we check out 19 percent fewer books, with less to choose from. That same year, collection totals had fallen to 693 million volumes, down from 816 million in 2008.

17 minutes of shame

That’s how long the average American spends reading books each day. In fact, we’re reading less now than at any point since Gallup first surveyed our reading habits in 1990. On the other hand, we now spend about seven hours of a typical day looking at screens — watching TV, playing video games, using our phones and working on computers. 

Kristyn Bailey for the Deseret News

9,057 and holding

That was the number of public libraries in the United States in 2019, according to an annual survey by an obscure federal agency called the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Despite significant cultural turbulence, that number has stayed rather steady since 1992. This seems to indicate a remarkable degree of success as libraries evolve with their changing communities.

The Covid-19 effect

Most libraries suspended in-person services at the onset of pandemic-era lockdowns and restrictions in 2020. But rather than tanking the institution, this accelerated a process of reimagining how libraries can best serve their communities, which was already underway amid social changes like the increased use of mobile phones. Some creative solutions that seem to be sticking: virtual story times, lending laptops, extending Wi-Fi outside and increased digital items like e-books.

#eBooksForAll

Just over half of all library collections are now digital, but e-books present certain challenges of their own. According to Virginia Public Media, digital copies cost more than twice as much as print copies and often come with special limitations, like premium fees for simultaneous readers or caps on how many times a copy can be loaned out. Some electronic publishers won’t sell to libraries at all. In response, the American Library Association has led an online campaign to make e-books universally accessible like their print counterparts, anchored by this hashtag.

Collateral damage

Public and academic libraries have found themselves caught in the crossfire of culture war debates around freedom of speech, book bans and budgetary austerity. Government funding for public libraries has come under attack in places as diverse as New York City and Llano County, Texas. In some cases, threats have even turned violent. For example, a school library in Rochester, New York, received a bomb threat over a book covering LGBTQ+ issues.

Kristyn Bailey for the Deseret News

First responders

Today’s librarians do much more than help patrons navigate research databases or teach kids how to find books using the Dewey Decimal System. As one of the last open public spaces with cost-free services, libraries often attract marginalized communities and homeless folks. Some come to use a computer or read books; others to shelter from the weather. This has pushed librarians into a frontline role in national crises like opioid addiction. Naloxone, a drug used to save overdose victims, is freely available at libraries from Salt Lake County to New Orleans.

A literacy crisis

According to the Library Journal, one-fifth of American adults are “functionally illiterate,” which leads to worse life outcomes across the board. Libraries look to address that through a variety of programs for people of all ages and backgrounds. These include English as a Second Language (ESL) courses, youth reading programs and adult literacy classes.


“Libraries don’t just provide free access to books and other cultural materials, they also offer things like companionship for older adults, de facto child care for busy parents, language instruction for immigrants and welcoming public spaces for the poor, the homeless and young people.” — Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist at New York University and author of “Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life,” writing for The New York Times.

This story appears in the September issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.