According to “Libraries at the Crossroads,” a recent Pew Research Center report on the public library habits of U.S. residents age 16 and older, over the past three years in-person library visits have waned slightly despite the public’s marked desire for new and improved library services. These findings, as John B. Horrigan, senior researcher at Pew, writes in his report, suggest that the library as an institution is “buffeted by cross currents.”
In March and April, Pew conducted a telephone survey of 2,004 Americans and discovered that many want to see libraries do more to facilitate the enhancement of job skills and expand services in the realms of education, technology, and military and veteran needs. However, the report also shows that there has been a slight downtick in library usage. For example, 46 percent of those surveyed say they visited a library or bookmobile in-person in the past year, compared to 48 percent of respondents who said the same in 2013, and 53 percent in 2012. Electronic use is also down; 22 percent of respondents to this survey reported having used a library website in the past year, as opposed to 30 percent who had done so in 2013 and 25 percent in 2012.
That downward trend raises the question—is this decrease, however minor, something to fret over?
Not a Trend?
Because the Pew report focuses on a relatively short three-year time frame, Horrigan believes it is “too early to identify a definitive national trend.” Samantha Becker, principal research scientist for the U.S. Impact Study, agreed.
“A lot of changes that have happened in the last three years in terms of unemployment rates and shifts in technology use can affect the ebb and flow of people’s use of public libraries,” Becker told LJ. The Public Libraries in the United States Survey Report from the Institute of Museum and Library Services for FY12, for instance, showed a 20.7 percent increase in in-person library visits of over the previous ten years. And mobile access is on the upswing: 50 percent of this year’s respondents accessed their public library’s website using a mobile device, such as tablet or smartphone—up from 39 percent in 2012.
“It will take a while to see [if decreased library use is a trend]—especially as libraries change what they do in response to surveys [like the Pew report].”
The U.S. Impact Study, which is affiliated with the Technology and Social Change Group (TASCHA) at the University of Washington Information School, started the Impact Survey in 2009. The Survey allows libraries to collect data on library usage at a local level.
Sari Feldman, president of the American Library Association (ALA), finds studies like those conducted by the Impact Survey and Pew to be essential in promoting public awareness for libraries and library services.
“[Surveys] make us pay attention to the value of public awareness,” Feldman told LJ.
Public perception of libraries an issue that Feldman is tackling in her Libraries Transform Campaign, which launched this year. The campaign aims to increase “public awareness of the value, impact, and services provided by libraries and library professionals.”
“I think the public is not fully aware of what libraries offer,” Feldman told LJ. “I think some people are turning to other sources to get information and digital content, not fully realizing that libraries have that.” For example, according to the Pew report, almost half (46 percent) of Americans 16 and over are still unaware that their local libraries offer ebooks; according to the ALA, at least 90 percent of public libraries lend ebooks.
This is particularly important because, according to the Pew report, people want libraries to “embrace new technologies such as 3-D printers and provide services to help patrons learn about high-tech gadgetry.”
Promoting awareness among targeted groups of people could also be beneficial in terms of increased library use; for example, Becker believes that libraries should reach out more to people who work from home. In the 2009 Impact Survey, Becker explained, many comments championed libraries as “productive spaces.”
“Make people more aware of the public library as a quiet, productive space where you can do your work,” Becker said. “This could change the numbers and reasons why people go to libraries. Libraries could do more to attract these people.” Pew findings show that a fairly high majority (64 percent) of respondents say libraries should “definitely” have more comfortable spaces for reading, working, and relaxing.
Marketing libraries as productive spaces (or, more specifically, as “collaborative spaces” and as “places of community learning,” Feldman added) will inevitably solidify the public’s perception of libraries’ status as community hubs.
The solution to improving library usage, both Feldman and Becker agreed, is to go local.
“A trend among libraries has been a trend toward meeting community needs,” Feldman told LJ. “It’s less about what has been the traditional library service. Let’s really dig in locally and have a local expectation of what you can expect when you come to the library.”
In the same vein, from a researcher’s perspective, Becker offered the following advice: “Before libraries respond to surveys, they need to test it in their communities. They need to check if statistics are reflective of their communities.”
Despite the drop in usage, according to the Pew survey, 65 percent of those 16 and older say that closing their local public library would have a major impact on their community. Low-income Americans, Hispanics, and African Americans, in particular, are “more likely than others to say that a library closing would impact their lives and communities”; Hispanics are especially inclined to identify libraries as “helping a lot with learning information on community events and volunteer opportunities.” Sixty-eight percent of all respondents say that “libraries help people learn about local events and resources in their community.” Furthermore, community activists are more likely to use libraries—63 percent of those who answered the survey said they had visited the library in the previous year to collaborate on community problems.