The singular most important finding in the latest Pew study, Library Services in the Digital Age, is that libraries—in the opinion of most Americans—aren’t just about books. 80% of U.S. residents say that lending books is a “very important” service, but they rate the help they get from reference librarians as equally important. And nearly the same number, 77%, reported that free access to technology and the Internet is also very important. This triumvirate—books, help, and technology—runs through the entire report.

Could the library brand—historically bound to book borrowing—be undergoing a transformation? In the last major study of users, OCLC’s Perception of Libraries, 2010, patrons were asked to associate the first thing that came to mind when they thought of libraries. And for 75% of the respondents, the answer was books. While Pew didn’t play the same association game, it seems that Pew’s users have a more nuanced take on the library’s role.

The Pew study is based on landline and cell phone interviews conducted in English and Spanish, with a nationally representative sample of 2,252 people ages 16 and older. It could be that the study tapped into a younger demographic who make greater use of library technology. Or perhaps the recession, which has forced millions to rediscover libraries, was a catalyst for users to take fuller advantage of what the library offers.

Good value, lousy marketing

Of those who have used a library, 98% rated the experience as very or mostly positive. Participants were also clear in how much they valued libraries; 76% say that libraries are important to them and their families. Libraries fared even better when participants considered the value of libraries for society, with 91% rating libraries as either very important or somewhat important for their community.

What’s surprising is that libraries get such good grades when much of the public has only a limited notion of their services. While one in five (22%) know “all or most” of what their library offers, 46% know some of what’s going on with the remaining 31% are pretty much clueless.

However, considering the enormous range of activities happening in most public libraries—from lap sit programs for babies to courses on writing your own Fifty Shades of Grey to estate planning for seniors—it’s unlikely that most library staff members would score much better. Nevertheless, as one participant said: “they do so many fabulous things, [but] they have horrible marketing.”

The importance of place

When people where queried about what they actually did in libraries, as opposed to the roles they consider to be most important, books still rule. Of those who visited a library in the past year, 73% reported that they borrowed books and another 73% stopped into the library to browse for books or media. “Even when they had reserved materials online, several liked to browse for books, movies, music.”

Despite the growth in digital services—from online reference to e-books—participants clearly had a clear interest in the physical library. They wanted quiet spaces for children and adults, separate locations for different services, free public meeting rooms, and more comfortable spaces for reading, working, and relaxing (“like home room for your community”).

When it comes to that trend of downsizing book collections to provide space for media labs tech or space for social activities the response was more mixed—except among younger Americans, who may well value a Starbucks-like environment over the full run of Anthony Trollope.

The future: murky

While the survey clearly delineated Americans’ attitudes and experiences with public libraries, the situation is, not surprising, a whole lot messier when investigating the public’s expectations of the future.

Three-quarters of respondents want online, “Ask Librarian” services, 69% want the opportunity to try out new technology in a “technology petting zoo,” and 64% want to “Amazon-ize” the public library with personalized accounts and customized recommendations, while 53% want libraries of offer more e-books.

They also want cell phone apps for accessing library content and services, cell phone apps that can help you locate material in the library through GPS, Redbox-like library kiosks throughout the community for accessing content, more variety in e-books, pre-loaded e-book readers, classes on how to download library e-books, and plenty more.

Clearly, American library users wanted it all: a beautiful well-stocked place, perfect for browsing and sipping, reading and listening. And a humming web site, accessible from your handheld device, offering an array of content plus direct, one-on-one services.

Library Services in the Digital Age provides a wealth of clear information that is invaluable for anyone managing, planning, or working with libraries. Unfortunately, the authors chose to also hold focus groups with librarians, and include their opinions throughout the study—which can be easily confused with the survey results.

Input from librarians is valuable. But good data from library users is absolutely invaluable, and it would better if this report had focused solely on the user. Let the Public Library Association research its membership’s take on the future.