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We are the 91% (who think libraries are important)

Librarians have become accustomed to the tragic chorus declaring that libraries must adjust to changing times or woe shall befall them. Well, some have become accustomed; others have become frustrated, while still others have simply become inured to the laments of the doomsayers, even if they share a break room with some of these doomsayers.

Yet the declarations of “change or vanish,” are frequently not actually coming from library patrons, which is borne out in the recent study “Library Services in the Digital Age” by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. A study that demonstrates that despite fears that libraries are becoming irrelevant in a digital age that large pluralities in fact: still consider libraries important (to them and to their communities), and there is still a high level of support for “traditional” library services.

Though this figure may not surprise any librarians, according to the study:

“Fully 91% of Americans ages 16 and older say public libraries are important to their communities; and 76% say libraries are important to them and their families.” (4)

While anybody who follows public opinion in the US, and the political reaction to it, should recognize that there is precious little correlation between what most people consider important and what is considered a political priority, it is worth noting that the public, as visible in the Pew Study, seem to find great value in their libraries. Despite that missing 9%, it is significant that 91% of those surveyed noted that libraries are important to their communities. There aren’t many things that 91% of surveyed Americans agree on.

Libraries at the moment are attempting to recover from the fierce one-two-punch of change: technological developments and budget cuts. These are both blows that have staggered libraries, and yet the Pew study makes one truly question who exactly is responsible for throwing these punches.

After all, participants in the Pew study, consistently gave high marks to library services such as “borrowing books” (80% cited this as very important), “reference librarians” (80% cited this as very important), and “very important” does not include others who found these things “somewhat important.”

Meanwhile on the more technological front “free access to computers and the internet” was considered very important by 77% but the percentages that voiced support for more e-books and other tech heavy programs (while still coming in at pluralities) came in at consistently lower than 80%.

Indeed, most people would love to see more library programs that target and provide resources to children (coordinating with local schools, offering “early literacy programs”); however:

“The services about which our national survey respondents are more ambivalent involved moving library services online and automating services…The least popular idea was moving some print books out of public locations to free up more space for things such as tech centers, reading rooms, meeting rooms and cultural events;” (47)

All of this leads to two simple conclusions: a clear plurality support libraries, and a clear plurality thinks that “traditional” library services (actual books, real librarians [as opposed to automation]) are valuable. Which makes one wonder, again, who is throwing the punches? Technological change may require libraries to shift some resources, but based on the survey, clear majorities are not braying for libraries to turn into Apple stores.

As for library usage, consider that according to the Pew study:

“52% of recent library users say their use of the library in the past five years has not changed to any great extent. At the same time, 26% of recent survey users say their library use has increased and 22% say their use has decreased.” (5)

Without wanting to minimize that “22%” whose use is decreasing, it is worth highlighting that most people are either continuing to use their libraries or are using their libraries more. And yet, there is something seriously missing from those above numbers. What has been happening at many (many) libraries in the last few years? Budget cuts, followed by budget slashes, followed by budget crunches, followed by budget gouging, followed by etc…

What does it mean if library usage is remaining constant or improving in an age when many libraries are forced to reduce their hours? Could part of the cause for 22% reporting decreased usage have anything to do with slashed hours? The report does not make it clear (one way or another).

Indeed, while the Pew report provides much interesting information (as Pew reports are wont to do) it also fails to put the findings into much in the way of a broader political context (as Pew reports are wont to do). The Pew Research Center describes itself as “nonpartisan and takes no position on social issues.” (10) One can find excellent merit in many of Pew’s studies and still recognize that a deficiency in many of their studies is their commitment to remaining  “nonpartisan” and to their commitment to taking “no position on social issues.”

Libraries are parts of communities and their funding comes, largely, from the government, as such examining them while taking “no position” seems rather laughable (this is clearly focusing on public libraries). Granted, the “no position” is highly suspect, if for no other reason than that the study was conducted. Taking the time and devoting the resources to conduct a study of what people think of “library services in the digital age” is to take the position that this is at least a question worth asking. There is some attribution of value to libraries nested in the fact that the study was conducted, again, if libraries were viewed as unimportant the study would not have been conducted.

The question posed by the study (the value of libraries in a digital age) is a question worth asking. And the answers that are found in the Pew report are encouraging (“Fully 91% of Americans ages 16 and older say public libraries are important to their communities; and 76% say libraries are important to them and their families.” (4)), if not particularly surprising. Librarians know that their libraries are important parts of the community, they know that the community values them, and they know that despite what technophiles and editorial pages might say people still come to libraries for books, reference librarians, and access to community space.

Pew does an excellent job of summarizing the study’s findings (you can read the summary here), but what Pew does not do is set the findings in the proper context. Libraries have been under attack for quite a while now and while the reasons given for this attack vary from attacker to attacker and from campaign to campaign the fact remains that whether you call it a “budget cut” or saying “libraries are obsolete” damage is being done.

The Pew study fails to set the proper background for the study, and thus it is not immediately clear (unless the reader is already aware) that these uniformly positive pluralities reactions being shown in the Pew study are all occurring at a time when library budgets are being slashed. This is the missing part of the study: that at a time when libraries are being decimated people are still standing by their libraries, 91% say they are important to their communities, and yet the budgets are still slashed.

Recognition of the budget cut side of the issue is vital to understanding the study properly. Part of the study involves participants being asked about what types of services they would like to see added, and while many of the suggestions are quite obvious (and good) the problem remains that the study does not recognize that many libraries are already struggling to do more with less. Less money, less staffing, less hours they can stay open. It is a lovely idea to think that libraries can offer more services, and it would be wonderful if libraries could do a better job of publicizing their activities, but if libraries are going to be able to do these things they will require the resources to make these things happen.

As part of the Pew study a conversation was conducted with many librarians and some of their lengthy responses are included in the study. While some of the librarians quoted do mention budget cuts these voices are few, giving the impression that this is a less widespread problem than it actually is.

The Pew study shows that people know how much value there is in their local libraries, and they seem to recognize that this value extends beyond them to their whole communities. It also indicates that people are aware of the value of the variety of services offered at their libraries, but the Pew study fails to ask any questions about patron’s awareness of how budget cuts are impacting the library.

It is easy to delve into the report and pull from it a clear class based analysis of the issue at hand (particularly once one takes into account budget cuts), for libraries offer broad resources to the public and many that are of great import to the most financially insecure populations. Access to computers with Internet access may not seem like a huge concern to those who are accustomed to having such access in their home, but libraries play an essential role in blunting the worst effects of the digital divide. It is easy to look at the study, see which groups most value various services and then understand exactly how cuts to their local libraries will affect them.

While the Pew study is a very interesting read (in fairness this could be said of many Pew studies) it has little in it that will surprise many librarians or library lovers (and it likely won’t surprise people who even just kind of like libraries [which seems to be 91% of the population]). A valuable element of the study is certainly that it provides solid “nonpartisan” numbers that librarians can use to back up their arguments, but the fact remains that all this study does is demonstrate that people consider their libraries important, that they consider old and new types of library services important, and that the digital age is not making libraries less important or relevant.

In the first paragraph of the study the authors note:

“library patrons are eager to see libraries’ digital services expand, yet also feel that print books remain important in the digital age.” (3)

It’s not just patrons, most librarians would also like to see “digital services expand, yet also feel that print books remain important in the digital age.” However, most librarians are also aware that they have less money to meet these demands and fewer people on staff to help serve this library loving public. To maintain what they have whilst expanding to offer more services is the dream of many (if not all) libraries, but it is hard to do this with fewer resources.

Had the study been conducted by a group willing to “take sides” perhaps it would have concluded with a series of questions asking the participants (who find their libraries to be important) what they would be willing to do to help save their libraries and what they would do to help ensure that their libraries will be able to offer the services that they would like to see offered.

Thus the study can be a useful tool for librarians to brandish when politicians are planning another budget cut or when an editorial board wryly writes that libraries are irrelevant; however, to use it in such circumstances is like telling a cat to get off the table. It doesn’t actually achieve anything.

What this study shows is that 91% of Americans think that their libraries are important. It is now incumbent upon librarians to get them to act on this. Pew may have the liberty of remaining “non-partisan” but this is not a privilege libraries and librarians can share.

The above piece quotes from the report:

Library Services in the Digital Age (January 22, 2013). Zickuhr, Kathryn, Rainie, Lee, Purcell, Kristen. Pew Internet & American Life Project.

About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

2 comments on “We are the 91% (who think libraries are important)

  1. Tegan
    April 21, 2013

    I think one of the important things that everyone who says “libraries much change or perish” needs to realize is that libraries regularly look at ways to innovate and expand, its part of what we are. It’s part of surviving budget cuts and relying on grant funding for projects. It’s part of being an active community institution.

  2. Pingback: Hiding in the Pew[s] – technology, class, and libraries in the new Pew study | LibrarianShipwreck

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