Reports on the death of the public library have been greatly exaggerated, according to reports published by the American Library Association and the Pew Research Center in 2012.
A Pew survey of libraries in 15 major cities found a decrease in visits from 2005 to 2011 in only four of them. Circulation decreased in just two cities. Pew notes that “Despite budget pressures… Seattle led the way with a whopping 50% increase [in circulation]…” This six year period corresponds roughly with the rise of the machines, e-readers, tablets , smart phones, and other mobile devices, yet it seems that libraries have held their own.
Visiting a library on a weekday when school is in session and noting that the majority of patrons are adults well into middle age but not quite ready for retirement suggests that they may not be there for recreational reading and web surfing. ALA president Molly Raphael points out that libraries are “providing technology training and online resources for employment, access to government resources, continuing education, retooling for new careers, and starting a small business.”
The “Mobile Connections to Libraries” report published by the Pew Internet & American Life Project at the end of 2012 suggests that remote access with mobile devices and on-site library services may in fact be complimentary rather than mutually exclusive. A study at the University of Washington in 2009 found that 6% of Americans over the age of 16 had connected to a library via a mobile device, while Pew’s own result from 2012 was 13% for the same age group. But who are these people and how are they benefiting from their mobile access to libraries?
The Pew results found statistically significant differences between men (11%) and women (13%), among a sample of about 1700 who had connected to a library site with a mobile device. Among age groups the greatest differences were between 18-49 (18%), and 50-64 (10%). At age 65+, the rate fell by half, to 5%.
Race/ethnicity showed no significant differences between Hispanic,White- Non-Hispanic, and Black- Non-Hispanic.There were likewise no significant differences between annual household incomes ranging from less than $30,000 to $75,000+.
The greatest differences were between no high school diploma and high school grad (both 9%), and College + (21%). Parents of minors were nearly twice as likely to connect with mobile devices than non-parents (19% vs. 11%).
The Pew Report doesn’t discuss the significance of the finding that only 25% of Americans 16 and older visited library sites during the past 12 months. Among those who did, the same number used services that probably led to a library visit than those that probably did not.
The most popular library services accessed online were catalog searches (82%), basic library information such as hours and locations (72%), reservations for audiobooks and e-books, CD’s, and DVD’s (62%), and finally renewals of those materials (51%).
One obvious conclusion that seems to be supported by the results above is that mobile access is a convenient way to get information that is used later during an actual library visit. This finding fits with the results of Pew’s comparative survey of library visit frequency from 2005-2011, where only one-third of major city libraries surveyed showed a decrease in visits during that period.
As of 2012, we need not write the obituary for the public library, although our optimism must be tempered by the almost unrelenting trend in reducing funding to libraries.