A Pew study released Thursday has some good news for America’s libraries—namely that Americans seem to love them—but perhaps even better news for library users.
According to Pew, the more people are “engaged” with their public library, the more they tend to feel connected to their community as a whole. Conversely, unengaged people tend to have “fewer ties to their neighbors, lower feelings of personal efficacy [feeling empowered to change their community], and less engagement with other cultural activities.”
While the study does not purport to measure personal happiness, there's a significant crossover between the traits of library users and traits of people who demonstrate higher levels of personal happiness: a sense of connectedness and empowerment in one’s community. Library users “are also more likely to say that they like their communities and that they would call their communities good or excellent places to live,” Pew Research Associate Kathryn Zickuhr told TIME.
Though library users share traits with positive, happy people, the poll results say nothing of causation. “It’s not necessarily that people use libraries and then find they’re happy,” Zickuhr said. It's just that library users tend to be more open to the world. “People who have more access to economic, social, technological resources are also more likely to use libraries as part of their networks,” she said. Library usage tends to be a part of a bigger picture, in other words, in which a person who goes to the library also tends to be one who spends time at the park, takes part in civic organizations, and embraces new technologies.
Yes, that’s right: people who love going to what may be, historically at least, the preeminent symbol of a by-gone ink-and-paper world are also more likely to do their shopping online or run their lives with smartphone apps. And those people, contrary to the popular image of the stressed-out, phone-addicted technopath, tend to feel less daunted by the quantity of information zipping around in the information age. Only 18% of Americans say they feel overloaded by information today—down from 27% in 2006—and those same people are the least likely to visit a library.
Maybe the rusty old convention of having a community institution that makes information accessible counts for something after all.