Pew Research Defines Library Users – Yet Again?


Pew Research Internet Project has released the third in its series of research “on the topic of public libraries’ changing role in Americans’ lives and communities.” From Distant Admirers to Library Lovers–and beyond “serves as a capstone to the three years of research the Pew Research Center has produced…”

The focus of this report is the creation of a new typology of Americans’ public engagement with public libraries, which sheds light on broader issues around the relationship between technology, libraries, and information resources in the United States. …

By creating groups based on their connection to libraries rather than their gender, age, or socio-economic attributes, this report allows portraiture that is especially relevant to library patrons, library staff members, and the people whose funding decisions impact the future of public libraries in the United States.

The impact of digital technologies on public libraries is particularly interesting because libraries serve so many people (about half of all Americans ages 16 and older used a public library in some form in the past year, as of September 2013) and correspondingly try to meet a wide variety of needs. This is also what makes the task of public libraries—as well as governments, news organizations, religious groups, schools, and any other institution that is trying to reach a wide swath of the American public—so challenging: They are trying to respond to new technologies while maintaining older strategies of knowledge dissemination.

While interesting that Pew Research findings support this conclusion; this is not news to those in the profession. So, let me state right up front that I found this report lacking in really useful, although critically needed information. They have re-named demographics, re-conglomerated social groupings, and generally rehashed the same information already available. AND, they took three years to do it, which makes their findings almost obsolete by 21st Century standards.

Having said that, there are a multitude of library professionals who may find interesting and possibly useful information in this latest Pew report.


By creating groups based on their connection to libraries rather than their gender, age, or socio-economic attributes, this report allows portraiture that is especially relevant to library patrons, library staff members, and the people whose funding decisions impact the future of public libraries in the United States.

Among the broad themes and major findings in this report:

Public library users and proponents are not a niche group: 30% of Americans ages 16 and older are highly engaged with public libraries, and an additional 39% fall into medium engagement categories.

Americans’ library habits do not exist in a vacuum: Americans’ connection—or lack of connection—with public libraries is part of their broader information and social landscape. As a rule, people who have extensive economic, social, technological, and cultural resources are also more likely to use and value libraries as part of those networks. Many of those who are less engaged with public libraries tend to have lower levels of technology use, fewer ties to their neighbors, lower feelings of personal efficacy, and less engagement with other cultural activities.

Life stage and special circumstances are linked to increased library use and higher engagement with information: Deeper connections with public libraries are often associated with key life moments such as having a child, seeking a job, being a student, and going through a situation in which research and data can help inform a decision. Similarly, quieter times of life, such as retirement, or less momentous periods, such as when people’s jobs are stable, might prompt less frequent information searches and library visits.

Most of the report reminds me of OCLC’s 2008 in-depth Report to the OCLC Membership, From Awareness to Funding A study of library support in America, except without the extraordinarily detailed information and recommendations. It’s nice to know there hasn’t been much change in the past six years in describing library supporters, and non-supporters.

At the risk of sounding like a know-it-all, I have to respond – DUH!?!? Anyone with any degree of library experience and common sense knows that “library habits do not exist in a vacuum” and that “life stage and special circumstances are linked to increased [or decreased] library use and higher [or lower] engagement with information.” SERIOUSLY? That’s the best Pew has to offer to explain the 21st Century library user environment?

I stated essentially the same things in August, 2011 – Customer Targeting – A New 21st Century Library Skill, and in a series of 21st Century Library Customers posts in February, 2011 covering all the generations that libraries serve today. [21st Century Library Customers – Greatest & Silent] For libraries to provide such a wide range of services and technologies makes their mission difficult, to say the least.

While Pew tries to impress readers with cool graphics and simple organization of extensive information [kudos], the content just is not impressive. It’s mostly a rehash, like I’m beginning to do in this post. My assessment is – nothing new from Pew. Maybe some enterprising marketing expert can translate the findings into a strategy to move the Solid Center to Information Omnivores, so be sure to share if you do.

ADDENDUM:
Are you a ‘Digitarian’? Look what one public library was able to discover about its users. “According to a city report, the information will help Phoenix libraries better understand customers and tailor resources and services to meet their needs.” Imagine that! Highly useful user information essential for local library decision making.

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