Can We Get Real Facts, Please


Since being exposed to research and statistical analysis during my doctoral program, I have been a skeptic of much of what is reported as “research findings.” The political polls are especially troubling when one considers that national trends are based on responses of about 2,000 individuals polled. That’s 2,000 who are supposedly representative of the 300+ MILLION. Seriously? Recently I listened to a Pew Research Center analyst spout library use results from one survey of just Philadelphia Public Library patrons and make assertions that these results were representative of library use nation-wide. BULL! Attempting to generalize the interests and behaviors of one city to the entire nation is just bad research at worst, cheap research at best.

Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project Report “Younger Americans’ Library Habits and Expectations” released June 25 reports the following.

Younger Americans—those ages 16-29—exhibit a fascinating mix of habits and preferences when it comes to reading, libraries, and technology. Almost all Americans under age 30 are online, and they are more likely than older patrons to use libraries’ computer and internet connections; however, they are also still closely bound to print, as three-quarters (75%) of younger Americans say they have read at least one book in print in the past year, compared with 64% of adults ages 30 and older.

At the end of the “Summary of Findings” section of this report website, under “About this research,” is their description of the survey – “This report contains findings from a survey of 2,252 Americans ages 16 and above between October 15 and November 10, 2012.” It totally boggles my mind that serious researchers would even consider basing NATIONAL trends, let alone make profession-wide recommendations based on a sample of only 2,252 people. We’re talking over 17,000 public libraries, with BILLIONS of library visits, and countless other academic and school libraries that are supposed to accept these findings as gospel? Seriously? I don’t, and I would advise anyone to seriously questions such results, and recommendations.

The thing that sparked my ire was that media publications have picked up the highlights of this Pew Report and drawn their own conclusions that the general public will accept as gospel also. Younger Americans still use public libraries, survey finds was the Los Angeles Times spin on this Pew Study.

Think teens and twenty-somethings who are used to looking up everything on smartphones have little use for the public library?
Think again.
“E-reading is still fairly new,” Zickuhr [one of the authors of the report] said. “We’re not seeing very high rates of e-reading amongst younger adults. But that could rise and affect the image of the library.”

Not only does this media reporting sound contradictory, it doesn’t really track with events and other data. And, if that were true, would Douglas County (CO) Library System be making a significant investment to create their own cloud for eBooks? AND THAT WAS TWO YEARS AGO!!

Even Pew contradicts itself, because the report includes this – “As with other age groups, younger Americans were significantly more likely to have read an e-book during 2012 than a year earlier.” So, is eBook reading among youth significant or not? Who can tell from this reporting by Pew or the media.

The San Francisco Chronicle blog, SFGate.com reported their headline Study: Younger folks are reading books, using libraries after all and included the following.

The stereotype: Younger Americans no longer visit public libraries and have all but abandoned paper books in favor of digital media.

Reality check: Young Americans are actually more likely than older Americans to have read a printed book in the past year and are more likely than their elders to use a library.

The Pew Study did not report that youth are reading their one book a year at the library – another fallacy of the research. AND, the youth come to the library to use the computers more than older adults, not that youth just use the library more. It is ALWAYS what they don’t tell you that really puts research in its proper perspective.

So what? you may ask. Media gets stuff wrong all the time, and sensationalizes laundry soap.

We’re talking about the future of our libraries. If the public – that includes those who make funding decisions – believes that youth are really using BOOKS, then why fund technology? Why fund eReaders? Why fund conversion to digital collections? Why fund anything new or innovative? “The library hasn’t really changed and all you hypersensitive librarians who think you’re going to be out of a job are wrong.” creates a mentality that change is not coming so why worry, or prepare. THAT is a very dangerous mentality toward libraries.

Change is here and now! Libraries MUST be innovative and understand THEIR users, not rely on questionable research results.

7 Comments

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7 responses to “Can We Get Real Facts, Please

  1. Very good points. Thought-provoking.

  2. David

    Just heard a presentation at ALA. Subgroups are based on a minimum population of 100.

  3. I thought I was the only one who looked at this study and thought, “Hmmm” when this was trotted around. If I learned nothing else from my retiring doctoral faculty advisor, Dr. Peter Hernon at Simmons, its was research design, probability and non-probability sampling and how to report findings accordingly. I don’t know what’s worse no research or flawed research.

    • Thanks for your observation.
      I’d have to say flawed research is worse because it reports misinformation that misleads and creates baseless conclusions upon which people are expected to make decisions that affect their library. I think that’s much worse, because with no research people will come to their own conclusions based on their own observations.

  4. Cab Vinton

    Have to question how thorough your exposure to research and statistical analysis was — national polling groups, including Gallup, which have dozens of PhD statisticians on staff, regularly use polls with under a 1000 respondents to track national trends. True, generalizing from one city is a joke, but 2000 properly selected individuals is plenty for a solid national poll. See http://www.ncpp.org/?q=node/6#3 & http://www.janda.org/c10/Lectures/topic05/GallupFAQ.htm.

    • David

      Great for a national poll but not good for breaking that national poll down into findings for specific minority groups when the respondents from those minority groups are only a couple hundred.

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