Pew’s Latest Library Report Looks at Services
The latest report on public library services from the Pew Internet and American Life Project takes a hard look at the future of library services. Most importantly, the survey explores roles for the public library beyond being a place to borrow books. Though book lending is highly associated with libraries, an equal percentage of survey respondents (80%) stated that reference services are also very important. A similar number (77%) highlighted the importance of the library as a place with free computer access. While book lending and ebook access continue to be seen as important, this report can help us explore other service possibilities as well.
For example, the report looks at a list of potential services rated by respondents as very or somewhat likely to be used. Topping the list is an online reference service; the next five include library apps, technology petting zoos, GPS-style navigation in the library, lending machines, and book recommendation services. What strikes me the most about this list of services that patrons highly desire is that many libraries are already implementing them. Seems like it should be an easy fix, right?
The report includes analysis from a panel of librarians that covers some of the problems. About half of the libraries represented on the panel already have an “ask a librarian” service and find it to be quite beneficial, but not all responses were positive. High service fees and a lack of real patron use led some libraries to cut the service (pages 58–59). When it came to a book/media recommendation engine, libraries again identified problems. “We are never going to offer customized recommendations based on past library activity because we don’t keep that information. It’s a major breach of privacy,” one librarian noted.
Yet if libraries are going to continue to prosper beyond changes to traditional book borrowing models, we cannot summarily dismiss patron input quite so thoroughly. Are there ways to provide title recommendations that don’t breach privacy? Of course. One possibility is an opt-in system. Another is to display recommendations on a title-by-title basis using anonymous information (unidentified people who read this book also read that one). In the end, the challenge we face can probably best be summarized by a librarian who was discussing third-party book recommendation options. Even though these services, like many others on respondents’ wishlist, are already available. (“Very few patrons make use of this service. Most don’t know it is available.”)
The report concludes with a list of four priorities for public libraries: Coordinate with schools, provide early literacy programs, create comfortable work/reading spaces, and offer more ebooks. But I am going to add another one and place it at the top of the list. Libraries need to do a better job of marketing their services to their customers. Coordinating with schools and school librarians is a great way to market, but the other priorities seem destined to fall victim to the same lack of awareness that plagues the other items on the list of desired services. According to Pew, 82% of Americans think libraries should offer free literacy programs for young children. As it turns out, these programs are also quite popular at the many libraries that already provide them—unbeknownst to 82% of Pew’s respondents.
One graph (PDF file), on page 39 of the report, sums up the problem as I see it. When people were asked how much they feel they know about the services provided by their public library, 31% of respondents reported knowing “nothing at all” or “not much.” Almost half of the respondents reported only knowing about some of their library’s services and programs. These figures quantify patron awareness about public libraries, but my hunch is that they would be about the same if the survey had been about school and academic libraries.
We don’t have to change everything to survive. Libraries are already providing the programs and services that the majority of customers want. We just have to make sure that the public knows we are doing this. Marketing is the answer.