Public Library Users Want Both Books and Technology

January 22, 2013

A new report by the Pew Research Center indicates that free access to technology in public libraries is as important to Americans ages 16 and older as printed books and reference services. “Library Services in the Digital Age” (PDF file), released January 22 by the center’s Pew Internet and American Life Project, showed that 80% of the 2,252 interviewees said borrowing books and consulting reference librarians were “very important” library services, while 77% gave free access to computers and the internet the same rating.

Of those who gave a high rating to technology in the library, African-American and Hispanic users were more likely than whites to feel free access was very important. Women and those with some college experience were also especially likely to feel this way.

The survey was conducted October 15–November 10, 2012, via cellphones and landlines in both English and Spanish. Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the survey is part of a larger research effort launched in the fall of 2011 to explore the role libraries play in American communities.

In other survey findings, a notable share of Americans said they would welcome wider uses of technology, such as:

  • Ask-a-librarian services (37% said they would “very likely” use this service).
  • Apps-based access to library materials and programs (35% “very likely”).
  • Access to technology petting zoos to try out new devices (35% “very likely”).
  • GPS-navigation apps to help patrons locate materials within the library (34% “very likely”).
  • Redbox-style lending machines or kiosks located throughout the community where people could check out books, movies, or music remotely (33% “very likely”).
  • Amazon-style customized book, audio, and video recommendation schemes (29% “very likely”).

Larra Clark, program director for the American Library Association’s Office for Information Technology Policy, represents OITP on the project’s advisory group. “This is an incredible opportunity to increase our understanding of public perceptions and expectations of libraries in the digital age,” Clark told American Libraries. “Pew does not advocate, but its work provides the ALA, libraries, and library advocates with timely information that can be used to identify gaps and opportunities, as well as communicate our changing roles in the community.”

A majority (53%) of the interviewees said libraries should “definitely” offer a broader selection of ebooks. In addition, more than half would be likely to check out e-readers already loaded with books (58%), take classes on how to download library ebooks 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 a significant growth over the past year.

The 53% of Americans who visited a library or bookmobile in person in the past 12 months took part in the following activities:

  • 73% browsed the shelves for books or media.
  • 73% borrowed print books.
  • 54% researched topics that interested them.
  • 50% got help from a librarian. Asked how often they got help from library staff in answering research questions, 31% said they frequently got help, 39% said they sometimes got help, and 23% say they hardly ever got help.
  • 49% sat, read, and studied, or watched or listened to media.
  • 46% used a research database.
  • 41% attended or brought a younger person to a class, program, or event designed for children or teens.
  • 40% borrowed a DVD or videotape of a movie or TV show.
  • 31% read or checked out printed magazines or newspapers.
  • 23% attended a meeting of a group to which they belong.
  • 21% attended a class, program, or lecture for adults.
  • 17% borrowed or downloaded an audiobook.
  • 16% borrowed a music CD.

The Pew Research Center also canvassed some 2,067 library staff members in December 2012 who provided answers to open-ended questions that illustrated what new services they were implementing or considering. Having more digital materials available was high on the list, and many said that they would love to have more ebooks available, as well as tablets and e-readers for checkout. Others wanted radio-frequency identification (RFID) tracking systems for books, hands-on projects in makerspaces, digitized local history resources, videoconferencing, and expanded community outreach.

“These findings paint a picture of a public that wants its libraries to be all things to patrons,” said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet Project and coauthor of the survey report. “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.”

ALA President Maureen Sullivan welcomed the report’s findings, saying, “The good news is that our nation’s libraries embrace this broad vision of meeting community needs in person and online and already are working to implement it. The challenge, of course, is determining how to best meet growing information and learning demands at a time when many libraries still face flat or reduced budgets.”

A summary of the survey findings as well as the complete report (PDF file) can be found on the Pew Internet Project website.


North Carolina State University student Tova Williams uses a tablet to tour campus with an eye toward African-American history at the university. Williams is using an app called Red, White, and Black, which started as a collaboration between NCSU’s Digital Library Initiative, the tour’s creators, and the library’s special collections. Photo: Charles Samuels, NCSU Libraries

University’s App Provides Tour of Black History

Students, faculty given access to materials and information not normally seen