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Hiding in the Pew[s] – technology, class, and libraries in the new Pew study

Evidently, Americans really like their libraries. Even more than we thought just a few weeks ago! While most librarians (even some of the more depressed ones) knew this, it is always nice to have more genuine evidence to back up this belief rather than merely having anecdotal and personal experiences to rely on.  Enter the Pew Internet & American Life Project that has, of late, been a supplier of just the types of statistics that make most librarians smile.

In the waning days of January, Pew released a report containing the feel good finding that:

“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)

And the librarians smiled and celebrated. Huzzah! 91%! What great news (and more on that can be found here [and even more can be found here])! But for those who still find 91% disconcertingly low, Pew is willing to oblige, as they released a report at the start of May containing the statistic that:

“94% of parents say libraries are important for their children and 79% describe libraries as “very important.”” (2)

This 94% comes courtesy of the Pew report “Parents, Children, Libraries, and Reading” (made public on May 1, 2013), it is a report that should give libraries plenty to be pleased about, even as it reveals relatively little genuinely new information; it just presents that information with statistics and the easily citable imprimatur of Pew.

The “Parents, Children, Libraries, and Reading” study provides quite a bit of data regarding the habits of parents and children when it comes to their library usage; however, it is not much of a stretch to sum up the overall findings by simply stating that parents (particularly of young children) use libraries often and when at those libraries they use a wide variety of resources.

What is more interesting than the basic numbers showing that parents use libraries are some of the ways this information displays larger ideas about what libraries are and what they represent. Thus:

“84% of these parents who say libraries are important say a major reason they want their children to have access to libraries is that libraries help inculcate their children’s love of reading and books,” (2).

The above statistic combines two carefully interwoven aspects of libraries: the fact that libraries offer a host of resources to people, but also the idea that youthful exposure to libraries can help to make a person a reader for life. It is not necessarily that the parents are using the libraries anyways and just taking their kids along for the trip, but that parents are making a point to go to the library with their children, a point that seems borne out by the fact that parents are more likely to visit a library than other adults. Thus having children can make a person realize the value of libraries to one’s own children, while simultaneously giving parents an opportunity to rediscover the value of a library for themselves.

The study is a reassuring one, indicating that even as more information seems to become available online that many parents still seem to recognize that the value of libraries is not simply about information it is about the space in which this information is accessed. Libraries, the study seems to show, provide an important context in which parents feel that their children will take away more than just the obvious pieces of information in a given lesson.

Indeed, as I noted above, while the study provides plenty of reasons for librarians to smile, it mainly presents information that will come as little real surprise to librarians and library lovers. Most public librarians know that amongst their most loyal patrons are parents. Yet there are still a few more interesting pieces to pick out of this Pew study, ones that can go easily ignored whilst basking in the glow of that 94%. These are the things that can be gleaned from the study about libraries and class (as in socio-economic) and parents views on technology in libraries.

The first aspect of the study that seemed worthy of note was one that in some ways runs counter to much of what is generally said about libraries. On the same day that this Pew study was released, Anthony Marx (president of NYPL) penned an op-ed in which he praised the increasing availability of e-books in libraries (more on Marx’s op-ed can be read here). Based on Marx’s op-ed one might expect that the Pew study would corroborate the NYPL president’s emphasis on e-books, but not so much.

If ever more technology and more money going towards e-books represents the future path of libraries, many of the parents’ opinions seemed to reflect a valuing of a much more traditional stance on libraries. Consider that:

“More than nine in ten parents of minor children say it is important that their children read print books. Eighty-one percent say it is very important, and an additional 13% say it is somewhat important. The importance of children reading print books is high among parents of all minor children, regardless of the age of the child.” (22)

Print books. Not just books, but print books. It is a distinction that Pew makes in the study and it is one worth emphasizing (hence my doing so). While it is true that this may partially be a result of the fact that some children’s books simply don’t translate as well to the e-book format (a big picture book just doesn’t work as well on a black and white Kindle, and a tablet is often smaller than a big picture book), the high percentages suggests that there is more to this than just a simple preference, rather there is a real valuing of print books. The study features several other percentages that bolster this print versus digital statistic, and a few stories (as related by parents during the focus group portions of the study) that provide anecdotal evidence of parents finding the tactile experience of print books important for their children. Yet this point was put most interestingly in a quote from a father in one of the focus groups:

“I’m reading like a book [on a tablet] and my children don’t know if I’m reading a book or if I’m playing on Twitter, so I think it’s important to have the book so that they go, ‘Oh Dad’s reading’…not just, ‘Oh he’s updating his Facebook page.’ I think there is like a difference in that” (22)

While parents are likely to want to see a range of library services expanded (as is also true of non-parents per the earlier Pew study [again, more on that here]), the value that parents place on print books is interesting. It is as if to tell libraries that while it is good to be  investing in an e-book collection, people who use libraries are not abandoning print books and still want to find those among the stacks. Granted, a majority of parents still hope to see various electronic resources made more available but these numbers are at a significantly lower rate than the “more than nine in ten parents” who emphasize the importance of print books. Therefore libraries should be wary of devoting too much in the way of financial resources to e-books and the like if doing so will result in drastically less funding being available to bolster the remainder of the collection.

Secondly, and much more interestingly, is the manner in which the Pew study discusses the impact that socio-economic class has upon parents in libraries. While Pew reports tend to be very interesting to read, in the actual reading they can frequently become a bit, repetitive (sorry Pew, but it’s true); granted this is just what to expect in a statistic filled report. And yet, this repetition allows patterns to emerge that might be missed were certain lines not repeated over and over and over and over and (for good measure) over again. Particularly as this Pew study was not interested in using words such as “poverty.” Nevertheless, one sentence, and some basic variations on it, appeared a truly striking number of times:

“Parents with income of less than $50,000 are more likely than those making $50,000 or more to say…is very important,” (53).

Just on page 53 of the report some variation of the above line appears four times (five if you count the paragraph that starts on 53 but ends on 54 [and six if you count the line that shows people with higher income finding something more important than lower income parents]). In some cases the line reads “lower income parents” or “those with income less than” but these lines, and their variations appear enough times to force a reader to pause and ponder the presence of these words. In truth it is rather dishonest to express too much surprise over this matter, the Pew study does not try to hide it, the following lines (and similar ones) appear as early as on page 8 of the report:

“When it comes to newer services that libraries might create, parents living in households earning less than $50,000 are more likely than parents in higher income households to say they would be “very likely” to take advantage of: [and then new services are listed,” (8)

Yet it is equally misleading to think that the above lines mean that lower income parents are only concerned with newer programs that might appear in libraries, especially as the following page in the study features a chart titled “Lower income parents are more likely to view various library services as “very important”” (9). A chart that shows that in almost all cases, of the services asked about, lower income parents were more likely to find these services “very important” and in all of the areas where lower income parents found certain services “very important” the difference was of statistical significance. [chart reproduced below]


And these socio-economic suggestions can be found in many other areas of the report:

“23% of those with income of less than $50,000 go [to the library] weekly, compared with 9% of higher income parents.” (30)

“Among parents, those with less than $50,000 income are more likely than those with income over $50,000 to seek help from library staff frequently or sometimes (78% vs. 67%).” (34)

and a very important point to note:

“those with income of less than $50,000 are more likely than wealthier parents to say libraries are ‘very important’ (86% vs. 73%).” (38) [note: these percentages don’t capture the responses of those who said libraries are “somewhat important”] (38)

It is always important when reading a report such as this to keep in mind the larger societal context against which the report is set; and thus this Pew study needs to be considered against a backdrop of a society in which library budgets are being cut and cut and cut and etc… When the report is viewed with the full social context in mind what emerges is a better and clearer sense of the populations that are going to be most highly (and negatively) impacted by cuts to libraries.

While it is certainly true that a broad cross section of parents (regardless of income and education level [which does have some correlation with income]) support and use a broad variety of library resources, it remains evident that lower income parents may be more reliant upon libraries than wealthier folk, and this reliance leads to feeling that libraries are more important and valuable. Reconsider the finding that:

“23% of those with income of less than $50,000 go [to the library] weekly, compared with 9% of higher income parents.” (30)

While “23%” may not in and of itself seem like a huge number of people, when compared with “9%” (or 94%) it suggests that nearly twice as many library patrons in lower income brackets would be impacted by cuts that would – for example – diminish library hours than their wealthier fellow citizens. Sequestration, austerity, budget cuts, these are all things that have a harsh impact on a society, but especially upon those least able to endure such blows. And as those forces hit libraries, those most reliant on library resources, will feel the blows the hardest. The fact that cuts will hit lower income patrons especially strongly is no secret, even if the Pew study does not aim to overly emphasize this fact (Anthony Marx’s nytimes op-ed referred to how cuts will effect services and the same sentiment was displayed in recent testimony by NYC library heads in opposition to further cuts).

Of late, Pew studies have given librarians much to be pleased about. After all, it’s quite an accomplishment to have over 90% of Americans sharing a positive attitude towards something. Yet all of these friendly statistics do not in and of themselves counter the distinctly unfriendly circumstances in which libraries find themselves today.

These studies provide important information about the goodwill that clear majorities feel towards libraries. But these Pew studies provide even more important information about the populations that the majority of the harm will befall as library cuts continue to deepen.

This posting quotes from the following sources:

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

Parents, Children Libraries, and Reading (May 1, 2013). Miller, Carolyn; 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

One comment on “Hiding in the Pew[s] – technology, class, and libraries in the new Pew study

  1. adithyaentertainment
    May 14, 2013

    Reblogged this on Adithya Entertainment.

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