For years researchers at the Pew Internet & American Life Project have been tracking changes in our information ecosystem. Now they’ll be looking at the habits and expectations of library users—and nonusers.
What does your community want and need from a library? If you’re a librarian, chances are you’ve made efforts to find out, to strategically plan, to adjust services to local interests and changing needs. Rarely, though, do any of us get to see a broad view of our library community through the filter of independent data.
The Pew Internet & American Life Project is going to give us that view. Over the next three years, new research will investigate the role of libraries in the digital age, focusing on the ways libraries serve their users and their communities. Supported by a $1.4 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the study will be implemented by the Pew Internet Project, a nonpartisan “fact tank” that conducts nationwide surveys and qualitative research to help us understand the evolution of internet use.
The grant will allow researchers to concentrate on libraries in a way they never have before. “It’s enormously exciting to be doing something very focused on libraries and librarians because they are primary stakeholders of our work,” says Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet Project. “I know from all the conversations I’ve had with librarians how interested they are to find out where they stand in the world, what services people expect of them, and where they might fit into the world of ebooks.”
The Pew study will come in three parts:
- The first piece of research will examine ebooks and reading devices. “An urgent question for librarians now is how to think about ebooks,” says Rainie. “We’re going to be looking at how people are using these devices, what their expectations are, and what their experiences in libraries are like today.” A nationwide survey will gather data from people who use ebook readers and tablets, particularly for reading long-form material such as books and magazine or journal articles. What role do ereaders play in their lives? What do they read, and how do they consume their reading material? Has the device in any way changed their reading patterns and expectations? By next spring, we’ll have new data to help us better understand the state of reading in America.
- The second phase of the study will look at the changing mixture of library services. Today libraries are going beyond their traditional role of curating collections to share their spaces and expertise with their communities in new ways, from hosting community programs to teaching computer classes. Researchers will ask people what they want from their libraries, and they’ll also gather data from librarians on current library services, possible services being considered, and services that may no longer be as important as they used to be. “It’s very hard for librarians to offer everything to everyone, and sometimes they have to make hard choices about new things to add to their repertory—and that may also mean they have to cut back on things they’re currently doing,” says Rainie. “We’ll be talking to both librarians and people in communities, so we’ll look at multiple sides of the same issue. We hope this will be revelatory and noteworthy its own way, but we also hope it will help the library community as a whole to figure out how to have these conversations so they might strike new balances with their communities.”
- The third piece of research will look at Americans and their library use: Researchers will map people’s technology uses and needs, their reading habits, their attitudes toward libraries, and their involvement with their communities. The result will be an elaborate typology of library users and nonusers. “Different people use libraries in different ways; different people have different attitudes about libraries; different people have evolving needs related to libraries,” says Rainie. “We’re going to try to get a rich, comprehensive picture of people and their needs, and then use statistical modeling to talk about different types of library users,” from library enthusiasts to people who don’t use libraries at all. Understanding the full spectrum of library users may give us new ways to think about serving different populations.
Rarely do we get an opportunity to look so closely at the habits and attitudes of our library communities. Let’s make the most of it. We can help the Pew Internet Project identify ebook users to survey. We can participate ourselves in the study of library services. And when the reports are published, we can draw on the data as we determine our next steps.
“One of the most interesting things about this environment to me is that no one has yet come up with a playbook,” says Rainie. “From the most sophisticated media companies to the most most gargantuan government bureaucracies, they’re all asking the same questions that librarians are. Everybody’s trying to experiment in interesting ways; everybody’s trying to understand what the new media ecology looks like and how it can serve them. It’s a hard world to figure out.”
While the Pew researchers won’t be offering recommendations, their work can help us figure out that world. Research reports will come along in a series, as studies are completed and data is analyzed. Look for the first chapter in the spring of 2012.
How to participate
There are two ways to get involved in the Pew Internet Project’s research on American libraries.
For the first phase of the study, which will begin in the next few months, Rainie will need to identify people who use ebook readers and tablets in libraries. Participants will be asked about their reading habits, how they use their ereaders with library materials, and what the experience is like for them. If you know of ebook-reading patrons who would be willing to participate, contact Rainie at lrainie [at] pewinternet [dot] org.April 2012 update: This phase of the study has been completed. The full report, The Rise of Reading, is now available online.
- For the second phase of the study, which will happen in mid- to late 2012, the Pew Internet Project will be surveying both librarians and community members about library services. Rainie wants to hear from a diverse set of librarians about services they’re now offering, services they’re contemplating, and services they may be seeing less demand for. If you’re a librarian who would like to participate,
contact Rainie at lrainie [at] pewinternet [dot] orgsign up here to be included in future online surveys.
Press release: Pew Research Center announces new research initiative to study the changing role of public libraries and library users in the digital age
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s library programs
“One of the most interesting things about this [digital] environment to me is that no one has yet come up with a playbook. Everybody’s trying to experiment in interesting ways; everybody’s trying to understand what the new media ecology looks like and how it can serve them. It’s a hard world to figure out.”
— Lee Rainie, Pew Internet Project