April 23, 2018

Pew/Gates Foundations’ Library Studies Close with Look at User Engagement

Pew: More Patrons Using Mobile Devices to Access Library WebsitesThe last of a series of Pew Research Center studies examining the changing face of library service in the 21st century was released in March, offering a look at library use that breaks Americans down into nine different groups of library users. The report, “From Distant Admirers to Library Lovers,”  caps three years of Pew research on libraries funded by the Gates Foundation, and looks to identify what users—and some non-users—value about library service, and where they may see room for improvement.

While previous studies focused on subjects like the rise of ebooks and related library services, and explored how library use is changing as services move online, the latest typology study asked some broader questions about who is using libraries, who is not, and what traits those individuals share. “We looked at library users in the context of the information resources they access, the other community organizations they engage with, the types of media they regularly interact with, and their attendance at social functions like movies,” said Kathryn Zickuhr, an associate researcher at Pew’s Internet Project who worked on the library studies.

For Zickuhr, the main message of the latest study is that people’s views on libraries, while mostly positive, can’t be taken in a vacuum. “People’s library usage and their views on libraries are really part of their broader information and social landscape,” Zickuhr told Library Journal. In general, the latest study, which took into account responses from more than 6,224 phone interviews of Americans over the age of 16, found that people who valued libraries tended to have more resources available and consume more information in general. The people most enamored with libraries, a segment made up of 10 percent of the population which Pew designated as Library Lovers, are not only big library users, “they visit museum at higher rates than the general population, they visit bookstores more regularly,” Zickuhr pointed out. The other group of high engagement users, called Information Omnivores in the report, rank high in education and income levels and own more technology than their peers.

The study also showed that life stages matter, and that certain points in a person’s life—looking for a job, for example, or becoming a parent—can have a major influence on how people view and use library services.

At the other end of the spectrum, people with less access to information tend to value libraries less highly, or in the case of one group, deemed Distant Admirers by the Pew Report, to value the mission of libraries but not use the services they provide. The report also found that while the percentage of Americans who reports feeling overloaded by information has dropped from 27 percent in a 2006 study to 18 percent in the latest survey, the people who do feel overloaded actually tend to have the least access to information, neither owning smartphones nor using the Internet regularly.

InfoDOCKET’s Gary Price points out that while most Americans view libraries in a positive light, the organizations still have an outreach problem, with even users who like libraries remaining unclear on some of the services libraries provided. “There’s all this stuff about libraries and how they love them,” Price pointed out, “but these reports also show that a lot of people have no idea what the library offers.” That’s a sense that has been present in the studies since the beginning, as Zickuhr pointed out that the first reports in the series showed that while ebook readership was on the rise, many library patrons were unclear on whether their library offered ebooks for loan, or how to access them.

Taken as a whole, the reports also suggested that, for all the talk of technological innovation in the library industry, many patrons tend to be distinctly old-fashioned in their library use. Print books remain a priority library service, and even as more library services move online, the value people place on brick and mortar libraries is hard to overstate. “People still identify libraries with a quiet physical space with physical books.” Zickuhr said. “People value those spaces in libraries to sit, study, and read.”

That’s something members of the library profession should be wary of, said Price, as it risks a view point that values library buildings over the librarians who work in them. “I don’t think a lot of people understand what a librarian does,” he warned. “That could result in people who are more willing to spend money on the structure of a library than the people inside it.”

Going forward, Zickhur said that Pew hopes to do some further analysis of the information gathered from the latest survey, which used a sample size almost three times as large as Pew normally employs, and thus could potentially offer insights that haven’t been uncovered in the initial analysis. She also said that while the recent surveys have offered a bevy of insights on the role public libraries fill in American life, a lot remains to be seen about the impact that academic and university libraries have to play, a subject she would be interested to see Pew take on in the future.

Ian Chant About Ian Chant

Ian Chant is a former editor at LJ and a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Scientific American and Popular Mechanics and on NPR.

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