January 22, 2013

Library Servies in the Digital Age

Libraries are key technology hubs in their communities   

Many patrons would like even more tech-centered services such as online reference librarians, apps for accessing material and browsing stacks, gadget “petting zoos” to explore new tools, Redbox-style lending kiosks, and Amazon-style book recommendations   

But many feel that print books remain important in the digital age

Washington (January 22, 2013) – Free access to technology at libraries now rivals books and reference help as a key library service:

  • 80% of Americans ages 16 and older say borrowing books is a “very important” service libraries provide.
  • 80% say reference librarians are a “very important” service of libraries.
  • 77% say free access to computers and the internet is a “very important” service of libraries.

Moreover, a notable share of Americans say they would embrace even wider uses of technology at libraries such as:

  • Online research services allowing patrons to pose questions and get answers from librarians: 73% of Americans ages 16 and older say they would be likely to use such a service.
  • Access to technology “petting zoos” to try out new devices: 69% of Americans ages 16 and older say they would likely use that service.
  • “Amazon”-style customized book/audio/video recommendation options that are based on patrons’ prior library behavior: 64% of Americans ages 16 and older say they would be likely to use that service.
  • Apps-based access to library materials and programs: 63% of Americans ages 16 and older say they would likely use that service.
  • “Redbox”-style lending machines or kiosks located throughout the community where people can check out books, movies or music without having to go to the library itself: 63% of Americans ages 16 and older say they would likely use that service.
  • GPS-navigation apps to help patrons local material inside library buildings: 62% of Americans ages 16 and older say they would likely use that service

These are some of the key findings from a new national survey of 2,252 Americans ages 16 and older by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, conducted via cell phones and landlines between October 15-November, 2012 and in English and Spanish. The survey has an overall margin of error of +/- 2.3 percentage points.

“In the past generation, public libraries have reinvented themselves to become technology hubs in order to help their communities access information in all its new forms,” noted Kathryn Zickuhr, Research Analyst at the Pew Internet Project, and co-author of a new report on the survey findings. “While many patrons appreciate being able to access new digital resources at libraries, they also say they value having print books and other traditional resources at libraries and still want a personal connection with library staff.  Many libraries are torn between expanding their digital offerings on the latest platforms and still providing quality resources for patrons who may lack experience with technology or the means to own the latest devices.”

The greatest public resistance to change came when the question turned to the prominence of printed books in library spaces. Asked whether libraries should move some printed books and stacks out of public locations to free up space for tech centers, reading rooms, meeting rooms, and cultural events: 20% of Americans ages 16 and older said libraries should “definitely” make those changes; 39% said libraries “maybe” should do that; and 36% said libraries should “definitely not” change by moving books out of public spaces.

When it comes to tech activities at libraries: 26% of Americans ages 16 and older have used computers and the internet at their library in the past 12 months, 25% visited a library website, and 13% have access library material via mobile connections through a smartphone or tablet.

Some 91% of Americans ages 16 and older say public libraries are important to their communities; and 76% say libraries are important to them and their families.

Public priorities for libraries
Asked about changes libraries could make to add to their services to the public, majorities of Americans would definitely recommend:

  • Coordinating more closely with local schools: 85% of Americans ages 16 and old say libraries should “definitely” do that.
  • Offering free literacy programs to help young children: 82% of Americans ages 16 and old say libraries should “definitely do” that.
  • Having more comfortable spaces for reading, working, and relaxing: 59% of Americans ages 16 and old say libraries should “definitely do” that.
  • Offering a broader selection of e-books: 53% of Americans ages 16 and old say libraries should “definitely do” that

Not only do people want more e-book selections in their public libraries, more than half of all people would be likely to check out e-readers already loaded with books (58%); take classes on how to download library e-books to handheld devices (57%) and take classes or instruction on how to use handheld reading devices like e-readers and tablet computers (51%). This represents significant growth from a survey a year ago.

The technology that is sweeping through libraries has also shifted library usage. Some 26% of recent library users say their library use has increased in the past five years and 22% say their use has decreased.

The main reasons people say their use has increased: 26% of those who are saying they use the library more say they enjoy taking their children and grandchildren; 14% say they are doing research; 12% say they borrow books more and 10% are students.  The main reasons people say their use has decreased: 40% of those who say they are using the library less because they can get books and do research online; 16% say their children have grown; 12% say they are too busy; 9% say they can’t get to the library.

How people use libraries
Of the 53% who visited a library or bookmobile in the past 12 months, here are the activities they say they do at the library:

  • 73% of library patrons in the past 12 months say they visit to browse the shelves for books or media.
  • 73% say they visit to borrow print books.
  • 54% say they visit to research topics that interest them.
  • 50% say they visit to get help from a librarian. Asked how often they get help from library staff in such things as answering research questions, 31% of library patrons in the past 12 months say they frequently get help, 39% say they sometimes get help, 23% say they hardly ever get help, and 7% say they never get help.
  • 49% say they visit to sit, read, and study, or watch or listen to media.
  • 46% say they visit to use a research database.
  • 41% say they visit to attend or bring a younger person to a class, program, or event designed for children or teens.
  • 40% say they visit to ­borrow a DVD or videotape of a movie or TV show.
  • 31% say they visit to read or check out printed magazines or newspapers.
  • 23% say they visit to attend a meeting of a group to which they belong.
  • 21% say they visit to attend a class, program, or lecture for adults.
  • 17% say they visit to borrow or download an audio book.
  • 16% say they visit to borrow a music CD.

Some 22% of those who visited a library website in the past year borrowed an e-book.

“The level of public eagerness for new services seems to be matched by wariness of changes in traditional library activities that patrons have used for years,” said Lee Rainie, Director at the Pew Internet Project and co-author of the report on these findings. “These findings paint a picture of a public that wants its libraries to be all things to all patrons. There is no clear roadmap of public priorities for libraries, so different communities will likely come up with different mixes of services as they move into the future.”


The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project is an initiative of the Pew Research Center, a nonprofit “fact tank” that provides information on the issues, attitudes, and trends shaping America and the world. The Pew Internet Project explores the impact of the internet on children, families, communities, the work place, schools, health care and civic/political life.  The Project is nonpartisan and takes no position on policy issues. Support for the Project is provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts. More information is available at www.pewinternet.org.

Disclaimer from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation: This report is based on research funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The findings and conclusions contained within are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect positions or policies of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.