Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie...and libraries. At the 2013 ALA Midwinter Meeting, Lee Rainie, executive director of the Pew Internet and American Life project told librarians that the results of a recently released Pew survey shows that they’ve done a good job carrying their brand forward into the digital age. Simply put, Americans love their libraries, with some 91% agreeing that the library is important. And in the next phase of Pew’s research, the third and final installment of a three-year, three-part study funded by the Gates Foundation, Rainie said Pew would look at creating a “Library User Segmentation Typology,” or, roughly translated, a marketing report.
“The third [survey] is, essentially, in the most noble sense of the word, market research for librarians,” Rainie said. “We’re going to come up with a library patron segmentation model. We’re going to use standard marketing techniques to figure out the spectrum of people who range from library lovers and people who love you for everything you do and would give you money for the things you do, to the people who are deeply isolated from libraries, to everything in between We’ll look at what their technology profiles look like, and we’ll look at what their reading activities or non-reading activities amount to.”
Rainie said that report would likely come out toward the end of 2013, or in early 2014. But, he also stressed, the final survey was still “up for grabs,” and could still be adjusted based on librarian input. “We want to hear from you about what other kind of research might be useful to you,” he added. “We’ll adjust on the fly if there is a better idea out there.”
Thus far, the first two phases of Pew’s library research has offered lots of useful information as libraries and their users transition to digital. The first survey, "Libraries, Patrons, and E-books," was released in June, 2012, and looked at the rise of e-reading, and demonstrated that “e-books have established a substantial and growing beachhead in the reading world,” Rainie said. The second report, "Library Services in the Digital Age," was released last week, and refelected how libraries are transitioning their services, showing that, despite simmering questions about the ability of libraries to sustain their relevance in a digital world, libraries have actually managed the transition well.
"Library Services in the Digital Age" offers a great picture, Rainie said, of both the “stresses and excitement” in the library world about the “mix of services” libraries now offer, and how those services “map” with the services previous generations have long associated with libraries.
He offered attendees a rundown of six “mega-takeaways” from the latest report:
1. “People love their libraries even more for what they say about their communities than for how libraries meet personal needs.” The survey showed 91% thought libraries were important to communities, with 76% saying the library was important to them and their family. “What I think is going on there,” he said, “is that people are pretty proud of their local library. It is an important signal about the seriousness, the stature, the civic cohesiveness of a community to have a good library.”
That, however, can cut two ways, Rainie cautioned. Some may look at that and assume that if it “ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” without understanding that the success of libraries is due to proactive changes that need to be supported.
2: “Libraries have rebranded themselves as tech hubs.” While 80% responded that borrowing books was important, nearly the same number (77%) said access to technology was important. “Without necessarily pronouncing that you have done so,” Rainie observed, “you have effectively re-branded yourselves.”
3: The public “wants everything equally,” thus, “library leadership” matters in terms of setting priorities. When looking to potential new services, Rainie pointed to a large range of people in the middle, between those who love everything the library does, and those who are isolated. Paying attention to that subset, figuring out “who they are” he suggested, could help guide librarians as to future services. “You’re the ones who are going to have to build it, and iterate, and change,” he added, “to figure out what mix of services your communities will appreciate most.”
4. The results show that the public “welcomes librarians to become more engaged in knotty problems,” such as working with schools or other agencies. Part of this is that people are “very focused on the idea that new literacies are essential in the digita age, and there is “a ringing endorsement” for librarians to get as deeply involved as they can.
5: It’s not all good news. The survey reinforced that libraries “have a PR problem.” Only 22% said they were aware of all the services their libraries offered, while 31% said they knew little or nothing about their libraries services.
6. Yet, in looking at the data, it’s not hard to “target audiences for engagement and outreach.” For example, 53% of people 16 and older used the library in the past year, Rainie noted, but 75% read a book in the last year. “So, there’s a 22 point gap between book readers and library users. That’s probably not too hard to think creatively about.”
Throughout his talk Rainie paused to take questions from librarians, and at one point, a librarian asked about the questions asked by Pew. After all, the librarian pressed, who really is going to say they don’t the like the library? Rainie said he appreciated the point, but noted that lots of other Pew data showed almost every other American institution has fallen in stature--for example, the government, the church, banks, corporations--except for the military, first responders, like firefighters, and libraries. “This is a pat on the back for a job well done. They wouldn’t say this if you weren’t serving them well.”