The Myth and the Reality of the Evolving Patron

July 1, 2013

Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project, knows how to win over a roomful of librarians, as he proved at the RUSA President’s Program, where he was the keynote speaker. He’s generous with both his flattery (“Every day spent with librarians is a good day”) and his cat photos (the feline census of his slideshow reached well into the double digits). But he also delivers—in abundance—what information professionals really want: reliable data that makes library work more meaningful.

The research pursued by Rainie and his colleagues at the Pew Internet and American Life Project covers library use on the national level and cannot substitute for insight into a particular community gathered through the kind of deep listening advocated by the Harwood Institute. Still, Rainie has a talent for translating these broad strokes into practical tips. Drawing on Pew’s recent report “Parents, Children, Libraries, and Reading,”  he said, “If you want to figure out who loves you most, it’s parents of minor children, and within that, the moms. Romance the moms.”

For the purpose of RUSA President’s Program, Rainie focused on the impact that three “technology revolutions” have had on library use. The 85% of Americans who are internet users no longer have to rely on libraries for content, but they do turn to us for context. Just as the “Fifth Estate” of the internet’s civic actors (yelpers, redditors, and the like) displaces the “Fourth Estate” of professional journalists, librarians can serve as fact-checkers and referees. Similarly, as “continuous partial attention” (a term Rainie borrowed from media scholar Linda Stone) mushrooms nationwide thanks to the adoption of all things mobile by almost 90% of Americans, librarians can embrace roles as sense-makers and curators.

Finally, Rainie suggested, the spread of social media use to 72% of adult internet users has caused the American public to shift its trust from institutions to large, dispersed networks. Pew has identified only a few exceptions to this rule; on a local level, libraries and fire departments are the remaining holdouts. Rainie urged librarians to seize this rare privilege by promoting what we already offer and continue to “innovate like mad.” “You’ve got a great story to tell,” he concluded. “Be not afraid.”

Pew research on libraries is ongoing, and there are a variety of ways for librarians to participate. Rainie’s slides are available online, and RUSA has posted a video of his presentation. Search Twitter for #RUSAPres13 to read audience reaction to both the President’s Program and Sunday’s follow-up panel discussion with Rainie. (How else will you find out what led to incoming RUSA President M. Kathleen Kern coining the hashtag #leerainiemeetsranganathan?)

BRITA ZITIN is participating in ALA’s Student-to-Staff program.


Erin McKean, Digital Packrat

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