Pew Study Suggests Libraries (And Print) Still Have A Future In An E-Book World

A new study from the Pew Internet and American Life Project looks at the future of libraries. The study, titled “Library services in the digital age,” doesn’t include anything particularly shocking or revelatory, but it suggests that many people still value the role of libraries, and that librarians are thinking about how their services can evolve.

Pew found that in the past 12 months, 53 percent of Americans who are 16 or older visited a library or bookmobile, 25 percent visited a library website, and 13 percent visited a library website using a smartphone or tablet. Of those “recent library users,” 26 percent said their usage has gone up in the past five years; the most commonly given reasons were the enjoyment of taking children and grandchildren; the need to do research and use reference materials; and plain old borrowing books more. Meanwhile, 22 percent said their usage had gone down, and the biggest reason by far was the Internet.

The study also mentions a bunch of additional tech-related services that libraries could provide, including an online research service for asking questions of librarians (37 percent of respondents said they’re “very likely” to use this); app-based access to library materials and programs (28 percent); GPS-style apps for navigating libraries (34 percent); Redbox-style lending machines (33 percent); and Amazon-style recommendations for books/audios/videos (29 percent).

At the same time, there was a lot of support for traditional library services. For example, of the people who have visited libraries in the past 12 months, 73 percent said they did so to borrow print books. And when asked if libraries should move some of their printed books and stacks away from public locations to make room for tech centers, reading rooms, and cultural events, 20 percent said definitely, 39 percent said maybe, and 36 percent said definitely not.

The study also includes a number of ideas from librarians about what else they could offer. It sounds like there’s plenty of interest around mobile apps, “makerspaces”/workshops, and RFID-tracking of books, though there’s some resistance too, as well as concern about funding. Here’s one of the more interesting responses:

We recently began circulating Rokus with HuluPlus, Netflix and Amazon Prime loaded onto them. As far as I know we are the first library in the world to do this. This type of out-of-the-box technologies are making a huge difference to the demographics we are reaching. I would like to further those types of technological innovations and push the envelope on the public’s perception of what libraries offer. These types of initiatives do cost money and staff time to develop the program—but if it is important enough, the money can be found.

The survey was conducted from October 15 through November 10, through landline and cellphone interviews conducted with 2,252 people. You can read the full study here.

[image from Paramount Pictures’ Hugo]