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David Lee King

Pew Internet & American Life Project’s New Report on Public Libraries



The Pew Internet & American Life Project has a new report out: Information searches that solve problems: How people use the internet, libraries, and government agencies when they need help.

It’s an interesting read… and I’m not quite sure how to take it! So… here’s a list of what I saw as some highlights in the report, with some yays and boos to go along with each (mainly taken from the executive summary part of the report):

Page v: “Faced with a problem in the past two years that they needed to address, about one in eight adults (13%) say they turned to their local public library for help and information.”

  • Yay! a goodly chunk of people used the library for real help – cool!
  • Boo! One in eight is dismal! How can we raise that number?

Page vi: “Major finding: 53% of American adults report going to a local public library in the past 12 months.”

  • Yay! 53%! That’s a majority of Americans! They love us!
  • Boo! Read the fine print – “in the past 12 months.” This says nothing about how many times they visited – only that they had visited at least once. Dave’s illogical translation: that could be one visit last year, to stop off at the bathroom or to pick up a child. that’s not a good indicator of library use!

Page viii: “Major finding: About a fifth of Americans with problems to address said they were concerned about privacy disclosures as they hunted for information.”

  • Yay! We’re all about privacy!
  • Boo! 4/5’s of Americans could care less about what librarians consider a major, huge issue. We’re spinning our wheels on the wrong road!

So… here’s what Pew concludes (from their website): “The survey results challenge the assumption that libraries are losing relevance in the internet age. Libraries drew visits by more than half of Americans (53%) in the past year for all kinds of purposes, not just the problems mentioned in this survey. And it was the young adults in tech-loving Generation Y (age 18-30) who led the pack. Compared to their elders, Gen Y members were the most likely to use libraries for problem-solving information and in general patronage for any purpose.”

But here’s what I saw:

  • only 1 in 8 adults use the library [when faced with a problem]
  • 53% of American adults visited the library… at least once.
  • 4/5’s of Americans aren’t as concerned about privacy as librarians are

I think we have some more work to do!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • http://roycekitts.blogspot.com/ royce

    Nice post DLK. I read the report this morning and was myself a little dismayed.

    IMO we are really good at marketing the library to those who already come in, but are not so good at getting non-users in.

    And you can probably cut back on staff by just painting a yellow line from the front door to the internet PC’s. Heck you should just mount them outside “Sonic Drive in” style.

  • http://roycekitts.blogspot.com royce

    Nice post DLK. I read the report this morning and was myself a little dismayed.

    IMO we are really good at marketing the library to those who already come in, but are not so good at getting non-users in.

    And you can probably cut back on staff by just painting a yellow line from the front door to the internet PC’s. Heck you should just mount them outside “Sonic Drive in” style.

  • http://schoolof.info/infomancy Christopher Harris

    I am just working up a review of this study for our system newsletter this month, and I also shared your combinations of yays and boos. Coming from a school library perspective, the highlights I took away from this were a bit different.

    Yay: If 18-30s are the highest users of libraries and much more likely to go to the library as a place to solve a problem then school librarians must be having an impact!

    EEPS: What changes do school libraries need to make given the move towards libraries as social spaces?

    That ought to keep us out of trouble for a bit!

  • http://www.davidleeking.com david lee king

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  • http://www.davidleeking.com/ david lee king

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  • http://walt.lishost.org/ walt crawford

    [Repeating an earlier, deleted, comment, albeit more mildly and at greater length:]

    This portion of the summary:
    “But here’s what I saw:
    * only 1 in 8 adults use the library”

    is extremely misleading–actually false.

    The study showed that, given a set of 10 information needs (most of which would most obviously be met either by consulting a specialist–I mean, do you go to the public library if you have a health problem?–or through a governmental or other website), and asked to focus on one instance of one of those needs…

    That, yes, only 13% of adults chose their public library as the information resource. Under this very special set of conditions.

    Know what? I didn’t use my public library as that kind of “information resource” last year either–and I use our public library quite a bit. To borrow books, to use licensed resources (which I do from home), to browse past issues of certain print-only publications…

    Since I’ve been saying for roughly two decades now that “The information place” is a dangerously misleading description of what public libraries are all about (except maybe “place”), it doesn’t shock me that most library users aren’t there to use reference collections and reference librarians as primary resources to answer everyday information issues. Which has very little to do with whether or not they use or appreciate public libraries.

  • Fred Danowski

    Although the findings regarding GenY are promising, the fact that only 1 in 8 adults use a library is pretty pathetic. That said, certain segments of the population inclusive of that number need to be accounted for, like the wealthy who can just pay whatever for what they need, and the poverty stricken who are just hoping for some food, and the silent majority of Americans who are apathetic about everything (including their civil rights). This would narrow that number significantly. If we could make it 2 in 8, that would be tremendous!

    It’s also nice to know that 53% of the adult population is visiting, but as you indicated, we have no context here. It would be nice to know how often, and how long these people spent at the library. We need more relevant data to really know what’s going on.

    Lastly, it’s not surprising that 4/5 of Americans aren’t concerned about their privacy. If you scan the horizon of general sentiment, it seems that Americans today are quite content to give up a number of their civil rights. This is very sad, and means that it’s more important now than ever before to fight for privacy, and against censorship.

    We have a lot of work to do…

  • http://walt.lishost.org walt crawford

    [Repeating an earlier, deleted, comment, albeit more mildly and at greater length:]

    This portion of the summary:
    “But here’s what I saw:
    * only 1 in 8 adults use the library”

    is extremely misleading–actually false.

    The study showed that, given a set of 10 information needs (most of which would most obviously be met either by consulting a specialist–I mean, do you go to the public library if you have a health problem?–or through a governmental or other website), and asked to focus on one instance of one of those needs…

    That, yes, only 13% of adults chose their public library as the information resource. Under this very special set of conditions.

    Know what? I didn’t use my public library as that kind of “information resource” last year either–and I use our public library quite a bit. To borrow books, to use licensed resources (which I do from home), to browse past issues of certain print-only publications…

    Since I’ve been saying for roughly two decades now that “The information place” is a dangerously misleading description of what public libraries are all about (except maybe “place”), it doesn’t shock me that most library users aren’t there to use reference collections and reference librarians as primary resources to answer everyday information issues. Which has very little to do with whether or not they use or appreciate public libraries.

  • Fred Danowski

    Although the findings regarding GenY are promising, the fact that only 1 in 8 adults use a library is pretty pathetic. That said, certain segments of the population inclusive of that number need to be accounted for, like the wealthy who can just pay whatever for what they need, and the poverty stricken who are just hoping for some food, and the silent majority of Americans who are apathetic about everything (including their civil rights). This would narrow that number significantly. If we could make it 2 in 8, that would be tremendous!

    It’s also nice to know that 53% of the adult population is visiting, but as you indicated, we have no context here. It would be nice to know how often, and how long these people spent at the library. We need more relevant data to really know what’s going on.

    Lastly, it’s not surprising that 4/5 of Americans aren’t concerned about their privacy. If you scan the horizon of general sentiment, it seems that Americans today are quite content to give up a number of their civil rights. This is very sad, and means that it’s more important now than ever before to fight for privacy, and against censorship.

    We have a lot of work to do…

  • davidleeking

    Walt – thanks for re-commenting! [Royce, I found your comment lurking in my blog admin pages, so you’re still there – not sure where Walt’s first comment went].

    I added this in my post – “[when faced with a problem]” to the 1 in 8 thing. To me, that clarifies it a bit, makes it much less of a strong statement… and I still find it pretty bad.

    Whether or not you or I would choose to use certain types of sources for a health problem, Pew found that our normal library customers are turning to TV and radio before libraries. I still find that to be a bad thing.

  • davidleeking

    Walt – thanks for re-commenting! [Royce, I found your comment lurking in my blog admin pages, so you’re still there – not sure where Walt’s first comment went].

    I added this in my post – “[when faced with a problem]” to the 1 in 8 thing. To me, that clarifies it a bit, makes it much less of a strong statement… and I still find it pretty bad.

    Whether or not you or I would choose to use certain types of sources for a health problem, Pew found that our normal library customers are turning to TV and radio before libraries. I still find that to be a bad thing.

  • http://www.lib.ksu.edu/dsa/personal dsa

    I agree with your wheel spinning comment in response to their finding that 80% are not concerned with privacy. For me as a librarian, the challenge is to find a balance between my desire to uphold our professional standards, in this case, protecting a user’s privacy, and their desire not to give a rip about such things. It seems that we can do quite a good job with privacy issues without asking that our users actually notice, care, or thank us for protecting their rights. Alas, too many of our colleagues disagree, and think that users need to somehow engage us on these issues.

  • http://www.lib.ksu.edu/dsa/personal dsa

    I agree with your wheel spinning comment in response to their finding that 80% are not concerned with privacy. For me as a librarian, the challenge is to find a balance between my desire to uphold our professional standards, in this case, protecting a user’s privacy, and their desire not to give a rip about such things. It seems that we can do quite a good job with privacy issues without asking that our users actually notice, care, or thank us for protecting their rights. Alas, too many of our colleagues disagree, and think that users need to somehow engage us on these issues.

  • http://freerangelibrarian.com/ K.G. Schneider

    The privacy finding dovetails nicely with OCLC’s discussion about privacy, sharing, and trust. I didn’t get to that in my (hasty) writeup about the Pew report but our profession is at odds with the public as far as balancing the two. Wouldn’t mind if that were mentioned in a future talk… ;-)

  • http://freerangelibrarian.com K.G. Schneider

    The privacy finding dovetails nicely with OCLC’s discussion about privacy, sharing, and trust. I didn’t get to that in my (hasty) writeup about the Pew report but our profession is at odds with the public as far as balancing the two. Wouldn’t mind if that were mentioned in a future talk… ;-)

  • Pingback: Library Views 圖書館觀點 » Pew Internet 公佈圖書館使用情形報告()

  • http://www.librarysurveys.org/ defconsult

    Your post picked-up on two limitations of the study. The survey does not measure how often people use the library or what services they use at the library. It does ask about services used, but only in the context of when visiting the library to solve a problem. So, this study doesn’t identify the highest demand services.

    The widely reported finding is that 18-30 year olds are the demographic group most likely to visit the public library. My bet: 18-30 year olds don’t frequently visit the library. In studies I’ve conducted for libraries, the frequent visitor (or heavy user) is an adult with children under 12 or a senior.

    The focus of this study is how Americans gather information when they need to solve certain types of problems. It should not be viewed or interpreted as a comprehensive library study.

  • http://www.librarysurveys.org defconsult

    Your post picked-up on two limitations of the study. The survey does not measure how often people use the library or what services they use at the library. It does ask about services used, but only in the context of when visiting the library to solve a problem. So, this study doesn’t identify the highest demand services.

    The widely reported finding is that 18-30 year olds are the demographic group most likely to visit the public library. My bet: 18-30 year olds don’t frequently visit the library. In studies I’ve conducted for libraries, the frequent visitor (or heavy user) is an adult with children under 12 or a senior.

    The focus of this study is how Americans gather information when they need to solve certain types of problems. It should not be viewed or interpreted as a comprehensive library study.

  • cj

    This might help fill in some of those gaps that people are pointing to as far as usage data. While this data is much older than the Pew data, it does cover a wider range of factors that go into library use, such as socio-economic and distance factors.

    Overall, NCES found usage in the past year by 47.6% of those surveyed. See Table 13 for breakdowns of what services were utilized during visits. 30.6% of those surveyed had used a public library in the past month.

    With the transfer of the stats program from NCES to IMLS, I am not sure of the status of this particular research going forward.

    http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2007327
    Households’ Use of Public and Other Types of Libraries: 2002
    Description: This ED TAB presents a series of tabulations that highlight households’ use of public libraries. Patterns of library use by household demographic, social, economic, and geographic characteristics are presented. The data for this ED TAB were collected as part of the October 2002 Current Population Survey (CPS) Library Supplement. The Current Population Survey (CPS) is a monthly survey of households conducted by the Census Bureau for the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Data are collected from a sample of 50,000 to 60,000 households through personal and telephone interviews.

  • cj

    This might help fill in some of those gaps that people are pointing to as far as usage data. While this data is much older than the Pew data, it does cover a wider range of factors that go into library use, such as socio-economic and distance factors.

    Overall, NCES found usage in the past year by 47.6% of those surveyed. See Table 13 for breakdowns of what services were utilized during visits. 30.6% of those surveyed had used a public library in the past month.

    With the transfer of the stats program from NCES to IMLS, I am not sure of the status of this particular research going forward.

    http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2007327
    Households’ Use of Public and Other Types of Libraries: 2002
    Description: This ED TAB presents a series of tabulations that highlight households’ use of public libraries. Patterns of library use by household demographic, social, economic, and geographic characteristics are presented. The data for this ED TAB were collected as part of the October 2002 Current Population Survey (CPS) Library Supplement. The Current Population Survey (CPS) is a monthly survey of households conducted by the Census Bureau for the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Data are collected from a sample of 50,000 to 60,000 households through personal and telephone interviews.

  • http://www.mcdpartners.com/ Martin Focazio

    For the most part, there’s almost nothing at the local library that I can’t get online, faster and with less hassle. Yes, I like the idea that I can get free books and the like, but to be honest, that’s not that much of a draw for me. In fact, my online sources of information are at least as deep and wide as anything I can find at a local library branch, with the exception of the more obscure historical titles and some of the larger-format documents like old maps and the like, and even those, I can now find online. When it comes to things like philosophical debates, I prefer the more dynamic information agora that comes of forums such as this one that we’re reading now – dynamic, living debates that are more direct and allow me to challenge views of others and myself more readily.

    Our local library branch has evolved into a sort of daycare center, where kids come for storytime and to make crafts and such. Although my kids go there every week, it’s gotten to the point where we carefully check the calendar so we’re not arriving in the midst of the storytime mayhem – it’s loud, distracting and totally wrong for the space.

    So why do we go back? Well, as one of the previous folks here put it, the library isn’t an “information place” anymore for most of us. So what is it? For us, the role of the library has totally inverted from a place where I went when I needed to know about the hstory of the steam engine or some such and it’s become a place I go to experience mandatory serendipity. I no longer go to the libary with a goal of finding out more about something in particular, I go there because I might bump into something I had no idea about. Sure I could do that online with sites like Digg and Reddit, but even those supposedly “unmediated” sites have a selection bias. Walking through a random stack has no bias other than the placement of the books on a shelf. I have yet to find a stack in the Library that has not held several books on topics previously unexplored or unknown, and I doubt I ever will.

    So for us, the interest in the Library is still very much there, but the reasons have changed.

    Thanks for the information.

  • http://www.mcdpartners.com Martin Focazio

    For the most part, there’s almost nothing at the local library that I can’t get online, faster and with less hassle. Yes, I like the idea that I can get free books and the like, but to be honest, that’s not that much of a draw for me. In fact, my online sources of information are at least as deep and wide as anything I can find at a local library branch, with the exception of the more obscure historical titles and some of the larger-format documents like old maps and the like, and even those, I can now find online. When it comes to things like philosophical debates, I prefer the more dynamic information agora that comes of forums such as this one that we’re reading now – dynamic, living debates that are more direct and allow me to challenge views of others and myself more readily.

    Our local library branch has evolved into a sort of daycare center, where kids come for storytime and to make crafts and such. Although my kids go there every week, it’s gotten to the point where we carefully check the calendar so we’re not arriving in the midst of the storytime mayhem – it’s loud, distracting and totally wrong for the space.

    So why do we go back? Well, as one of the previous folks here put it, the library isn’t an “information place” anymore for most of us. So what is it? For us, the role of the library has totally inverted from a place where I went when I needed to know about the hstory of the steam engine or some such and it’s become a place I go to experience mandatory serendipity. I no longer go to the libary with a goal of finding out more about something in particular, I go there because I might bump into something I had no idea about. Sure I could do that online with sites like Digg and Reddit, but even those supposedly “unmediated” sites have a selection bias. Walking through a random stack has no bias other than the placement of the books on a shelf. I have yet to find a stack in the Library that has not held several books on topics previously unexplored or unknown, and I doubt I ever will.

    So for us, the interest in the Library is still very much there, but the reasons have changed.

    Thanks for the information.

  • Jeff Imparato

    I’m sorry for you, Mr. Focazio, if you believe that your Library has very little for you personally. It is possible that your branch has been designated a “children’s” branch, because of its proximity to neighborhood children. If this is the case, it is possible that other branches have other specialities. Possibly popular reading, or Adult programming, or Reference & Research, or Genealogy. Don’t give up on your Library until you’ve explored the possibilities.

    Jeff Imparato, Reference Librarian

  • Jeff Imparato

    I’m sorry for you, Mr. Focazio, if you believe that your Library has very little for you personally. It is possible that your branch has been designated a “children’s” branch, because of its proximity to neighborhood children. If this is the case, it is possible that other branches have other specialities. Possibly popular reading, or Adult programming, or Reference & Research, or Genealogy. Don’t give up on your Library until you’ve explored the possibilities.

    Jeff Imparato, Reference Librarian

  • Martin Focazio

    Mr.Imparato,

    I hope that you read through to my conclusion in the previous comment, which was that I find that the library is a valuable source of “serendipity” for me and that I am still an active Library user.

    As far as the branch being a “children’s branch” – no not at all. The system I speak of is in Bucks County and the branches I refer to are the main library in Doylestown, as well as Quakertown and the tiny Rieglesville branch. Also, the Milford, NJ branch of the Hunterdon County, NJ Library system. All share the same “day care” dynamic to some extent.

    I do think I need to call attention to your attempt to entice me with specialties like popular reading and the like. While I can appreciate your affable attempt to remind me of the reasons I should go to the library, your particular combination of choices – Popular Reading, Adult programming, Reference & Research and Genealogy – just happen to represent a set of activities that would come under the “no need for the library” category for me.
    For popular reading – I use the Amazon Kindle and other eBook formats.
    For Adult Programming – I have a huge universe of content and materials at my fingertips right now, as I type this on a bus hurtling down the interstate highway.
    Reference and Research – maybe not a fair fight, given you are a reference librarian, but in my work, I do a LOT of research work, and as a result, I’m perfectly comfortable with many scores of online research tools and data sets. I have to admit – in the last 5 years, I can’t think of a single research or reference need that I have had personally or professionally that resulted in a trip to a library. I happen to have no interest in Genealogy at all, so that’s not an area I can speak on.

    I’ll draw this to a close with a few observations on the low levels of library use, and I’ll offer up some conjectures.

    I think that we’ve come back to to a way of conveying information that would be familiar to any aboriginal culture – and that is the the concept of “storytelling” as a primary means of transferring knowledge. We’re so steeped in multimedia with a high-density flow of information that I don’t think many people even have the ability to think about one topic for long. In any give 5 minutes of television news, you’ll get more concurrent information elements – visual, spoken and written – than with any other medium. Now couple this with the fact that it’s common for people to watch TV and use the internet concurrently and you have a way of thinking about information that is inherently incompatible with the idea of going to a place with your questions and gradually finding the answers. We drink from information firehoses these days, and the speed and density (but not necessarily depth) of this information is incredible.
    All I can say in conclusion is that the libraries seem to have adapted as best they can, but it’s not gong to be an easy job to stay relevant to society for another 100 years.

  • Martin Focazio

    Mr.Imparato,

    I hope that you read through to my conclusion in the previous comment, which was that I find that the library is a valuable source of “serendipity” for me and that I am still an active Library user.

    As far as the branch being a “children’s branch” – no not at all. The system I speak of is in Bucks County and the branches I refer to are the main library in Doylestown, as well as Quakertown and the tiny Rieglesville branch. Also, the Milford, NJ branch of the Hunterdon County, NJ Library system. All share the same “day care” dynamic to some extent.

    I do think I need to call attention to your attempt to entice me with specialties like popular reading and the like. While I can appreciate your affable attempt to remind me of the reasons I should go to the library, your particular combination of choices – Popular Reading, Adult programming, Reference & Research and Genealogy – just happen to represent a set of activities that would come under the “no need for the library” category for me.
    For popular reading – I use the Amazon Kindle and other eBook formats.
    For Adult Programming – I have a huge universe of content and materials at my fingertips right now, as I type this on a bus hurtling down the interstate highway.
    Reference and Research – maybe not a fair fight, given you are a reference librarian, but in my work, I do a LOT of research work, and as a result, I’m perfectly comfortable with many scores of online research tools and data sets. I have to admit – in the last 5 years, I can’t think of a single research or reference need that I have had personally or professionally that resulted in a trip to a library. I happen to have no interest in Genealogy at all, so that’s not an area I can speak on.

    I’ll draw this to a close with a few observations on the low levels of library use, and I’ll offer up some conjectures.

    I think that we’ve come back to to a way of conveying information that would be familiar to any aboriginal culture – and that is the the concept of “storytelling” as a primary means of transferring knowledge. We’re so steeped in multimedia with a high-density flow of information that I don’t think many people even have the ability to think about one topic for long. In any give 5 minutes of television news, you’ll get more concurrent information elements – visual, spoken and written – than with any other medium. Now couple this with the fact that it’s common for people to watch TV and use the internet concurrently and you have a way of thinking about information that is inherently incompatible with the idea of going to a place with your questions and gradually finding the answers. We drink from information firehoses these days, and the speed and density (but not necessarily depth) of this information is incredible.
    All I can say in conclusion is that the libraries seem to have adapted as best they can, but it’s not gong to be an easy job to stay relevant to society for another 100 years.

  • http://schoolof.info/infomancy Christopher Harris

    I am just working up a review of this study for our system newsletter this month, and I also shared your combinations of yays and boos. Coming from a school library perspective, the highlights I took away from this were a bit different.

    Yay: If 18-30s are the highest users of libraries and much more likely to go to the library as a place to solve a problem then school librarians must be having an impact!

    EEPS: What changes do school libraries need to make given the move towards libraries as social spaces?

    That ought to keep us out of trouble for a bit!

  • http://www.jrconsumer.com/ RV

    there will always be issues for people…