Get a Read on How Much You Can Save Using Your Library

in the library
Mike Kemp/Rubberball

Libraries are passe. Or so prevailing wisdom goes. After all, in the Internet era, where practically every American has a computer (or tablet or a Web-enabled smartphone), there's no need to trek to the library to do research. And books? Who checks out, or even reads, physical books in the age of the Kindle, Nook and iPad?

That all sounds logical, except for one thing: The facts contradict the theory.

Readers Welcome

Half of America has visited a library in the past 12 months, Pew Research found in a poll of 6,224 Americans ages 16 and older. And a mere 4 percent say they've moved exclusively to e-books.

What's more, while the millennial generation is widely understood to be more wired than their elders, it turns out that the younger you are, the more likely you are to frequent the library:

  • 59 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds say they've visited a library at least once in the past year. (And to be clear, we're talking about full-service, separately housed public libraries -- not just the school media center.)

  • The same holds true for 48 percent of millennials ages 18 to 29, and 52 percent of folks ages 30 to 49 (moving into Gen X territory here).

  • In contrast, those ages 65 and up, whom you'd expect to be most hidebound in their devotion to clothbound books, are the least frequent users of public libraries. Only 39 percent of this group says they've visited a library in the past year.

Get a Library Card -- It's a Bargain

Why do libraries retain their popularity in the digital age? In part, it's probably economics.

According to a Huffington Post poll last year, about 68 percent of Americans read at least one book last year. Breaking that number down further, "25 percent read between one and five books, 15 percent read between six and 10 books, 20 percent read between 11 and 50, and 8 percent read more than 50" books. That works out to an average of about 12 books read per reader.

The "official" estimate of the American Library Association is that library patrons check out about 8.1 books per person per year -- suggesting that the majority of books that Americans read are checked out of libraries. In fact, the numbers suggest that Americans borrow twice as many books from libraries as they buy from bookstores.

And why not? The School Library Journal in 2013 figured the average cost of a book (excluding reference books) is $15.32. Multiply that by the 8.1 books checked out of a library, and you have $124 that library patrons -- including you? -- save in book-buying costs annually.

A confirmed cheapskate, Motley Fool contributor Rich Smith rarely passes on a bargain -- and thinks free reading material from the library is one of the best bargains out there.

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