Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media


Selection from Cites & Insights 6, Number 3: February 2006


Library Stuff Perspective

Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources

It’s a fat paperback, 296 8.5x11" pages. ISBN 1-55653-364-0. You can order it for $19 from OCLC (www.oclc.org/reports/), read it online or download portions to print, or download the whole thing—but if you want the whole thing in full color, it’s probably cheaper to order it (and a whole lot easier to deal with a perfect-bound book than two-thirds of a ream of paper). The subtitle is “A report to the OCLC membership,” and the title page lists six principal contributors and three others charged with graphics, layout and editing. It is, in some ways, the sequel to The 2003 OCLC Environmental Scan: Pattern Recognition, this time based on a 2005 online survey carried out by Harris Interactive, Inc.

The topics explored in the survey include the perceptions and preferences of information consumers; users’ relationship with and use of libraries, including usage of and familiarity with electronic information resources; awareness of libraries and resources offered; the “Library” brand and its ubiquity and universality; trust of libraries and their resources; and people’s perceptions of the library’s purpose/mission.

I don’t have a comprehensive critique. For that matter, I haven’t read the last 70 pages of the publication. I do have a few notes and comments.

The short version: Even given acknowledged methodological limitations (and some problems I don’t believe are fully acknowledged), this is the most extensive and legitimate international survey of its type in many years. It’s worth studying.

Some will find the revelations disturbing and surprising. The authors don’t find the results surprising: “The findings presented in this report do not surprise, they confirm.” I don’t regard the findings as either surprising or terribly disturbing as a whole. I believe the results can be used to consider the contemporary world and the place of public and (to a lesser degree) academic libraries within that world. They can further be used to fuel calls for change, but such calls should include thoughtful examination of what’s feasible and realistic—and of whether things have really changed all that much. It appears clear from the multiway conversation that’s taken place at It’s all good and elsewhere that there are differences of opinion on those counts, as there should be.

If you don’t want to buy the report and can’t see printing out 296 pages (all in color, but you can get by with grayscale printouts), you can skip the appendices. That brings the page count down to 154 pages. You might be able to trim further, but I think that’s a bad idea. You should read all 154 pages, the introduction and parts 1 through 5, before drawing conclusions. The writers spent a lot of time examining the survey data and drawing conclusions that link together disparate chunks of data; you should spend time going through their narrative (there’s not that much text; there are a lot of charts and graphs).

Methodology

I’m not fond of “information” as a description of the role of public and academic libraries, and I’m correspondingly not fond of “information consumers” as a label for those who do or should use such libraries. That sets up an immediate dissonance in my reading. Take four questions at the bottom of page vii:

How are libraries perceived by today’s information consumer? Do libraries still matter? On what level? Will library use likely increase or decrease in the future?

I don’t see the second, third and fourth questions as following from the first—because, in my opinion, the real question (for public libraries) is “How are libraries perceived by today’s citizens?” The answer there is pretty clear: Favorably. They still matter.

When I’m being an “information consumer,” my local public library plays a distinctly secondary role: It’s there to fill in the blanks, not to provide the majority of my information needs. That would be true with or without the internet. I believe that’s true for most people whose finances are such that they can afford newspapers, magazines, television news, and (more recently) the internet, as well as other sources of information. [/soapbox]

When I’m being a Mountain View taxpayer and citizen, however, the local library is an exceptionally good use of my tax dollars, one that provides books and other resources, expert advice on the rare occasions when I feel the need, a safety net for those who can’t afford other sources of information (and an extension to my own resources), an environment and set of programs that encourage kids to read and to love reading—and you know the rest. I’m more than happy to pay for that “building full of books” (and more) even if I never use it. So, by all accounts, are most people. Until 2006, I never used the library’s extensive online databases except at the library, because doing so from home was inconvenient—but I didn’t begrudge the money that went to pay for those databases. Mountain View’s library has better than average funding; I’ve never seen serious calls to reduce that funding.

Pay attention to the facts about Salinas: Once it was clear that the libraries could not survive without new money and library funding was separated from various other public works, the citizens voted to fund the libraries. There are exceptions, but citizens and taxpayers are mostly willing to pay for public libraries, not as “symbols of wealth” but as essential community services. I pay for firefighters and police as well, and hope that I never need their services. On the other hand, most people do use public libraries at least occasionally, as this survey once again confirms.

Do libraries still matter? Nothing in this survey raises doubts in my mind. Will library use likely increase or decrease in the future? Here I think we need to look both at the survey results and at reality, where public library use typically increases over time within the U.S. (I can’t speak for the UK or Australia, or other areas studied).

The survey was large, although not overwhelmingly so: 1,854 U.S. respondents, enough for reasonable statistical inferences, plus 491 from Canada, 468 from the UK, and 535 from Australia, Singapore, and India—in all three cases, small universes for strong statistical inference. The survey was online and that’s stated as a weakness: If the one-third of Americans who basically don’t go online have different expectations of libraries, that throws off the results significantly. Given other surveys that suggest that, at least within academia, heavy users of online resources are also likely to be heavy users of libraries, I’m not ready to push that weakness.

The survey was also a survey—and a long survey at that, with 83 questions. As I’ve said elsewhere, I believe a growing number of us just don’t deal with surveys, and particularly long surveys. I believe quite a few of us who read, who have active intellectual lives, and who may be strong library supporters just will not take the time for surveys (and are likely to mistrust those carrying out surveys). Ask yourself and ten people around you: Do you respond to most surveys? Would you respond to an 83-question survey? Unfortunately, there is no way to address this weakness: You can’t do a survey that isn’t a survey, so the best you can do is recognize that it’s only a survey of those willing to take part in very long surveys. Thus, every finding in the report bears the invisible qualifier “of those willing to respond to very long online surveys.” I have no idea whether that weakens the results.

I have one other problem with elements of the survey and the report: The term “online library.” I have no idea whatsoever what that means—and suspect many of those answering the survey also had no idea what an online library is. Is it a library’s website? That’s not a library any more than Hilton’s website is one or more hotels. I don’t believe Mountain View has an online library, although the library’s website will let me see what I have out, renew books if there aren’t holds on them, and use online databases. The other four “information sources” seem clear enough, although hardly exhaustive: Search engines, Libraries, Bookstores, and Online bookstores. But I’m hardly surprised that a substantial portion of respondents have either “never heard of” online libraries or “just know the name” or are “not very familiar” (55% overall, 56% of U.S. respondents). I’d probably answer in one of those three categories.

To their credit, the authors do not attempt to demonstrate statistical validity for any of the results: I don’t see comments about statistical tests and thresholds. They provide the percentages. Once in a while, it pays to look at page xiii, where actual numbers appear, to note the modest size of most sample subpopulations.

Findings and Conclusions

I have three pages of notes on points I found particularly interesting—and I’m going to ignore most of them. Despite the notes above, I believe the report stands on its own, and it’s clear enough for any librarian to draw their own conclusions.

A few curiosities and mild surprises may be worth noting, particularly given the assertion by some library people that the younger generations have abandoned public libraries:

Ø    For an entirely online survey, it seems remarkable that 26% of respondents have not used email and 28% have never used an internet search engine.

Ø    96% of respondents have used public libraries, and 73% (overall and U.S.) continue to use them at least once a year. 75% of U.S. respondents hold library cards (the UK contingent falls to 59%). Only 27% have visited a library web site—and that’s really not too surprising.

Ø    31% of U.S. respondents visit their public libraries at least monthly; 55% at least several times a year. The figures for teenagers (ages 14-17): 34% and 62%. For young adults (18-24): 30% and 52%. If these generations have abandoned public libraries, they’ve done so in an unusual manner—and, by the way, 80% of them have library cards. College students use public libraries a lot more than I would have expected: 49% monthly or better, 65% at least several times a year.

Ø    Only 18% of U.S. respondents believe their use of libraries will decrease; 22% believe it will increase. For young adults, the “decrease” number is a bit higher (22%)—but so is the “increase” number (31%). (Teenagers? 12% decrease—the lowest of any age group—and 41% increase—the highest of any age group.) This does not say to me that libraries are on their way out.

Ø    Strangely, 27% of non-card-holders believe their library use will decrease.

Ø    Only 5% of respondents say they’ve used RSS feeds. I suspect this number is low and that quite a few people use such feeds without recognizing them as such. I’m less surprised that 49% of respondents have never used IM and that 84% haven’t used blogs. I’m astonished that 15% say they’ve used ebooks, given the sales figures for ebooks.

Ø    People mostly learn about new electronic resources (“other than search engines”) from friends (with links from websites and news media close behind). I suspect that may also be true for traditional resources. “Hey, you gotta read X” from a trusted friend is more compelling than any other recommendation.

Ø    People like libraries: 80% favorable ratings from U.S. respondents, including 47%” very favorable.” (Here again, UK libraries might reasonably be concerned: The figures are only 64% and 30%.) Heck, even 64% of non-card-holders view libraries favorably.

Ø    OK, so “kids these days” are using libraries—but have they abandoned books? Not so you’d notice: 66% of teenagers borrow print books at least once a year (32% monthly), as do 55% of young adults (28% monthly). Those people also use other resources that libraries pay for, more actively than most: 53% of teenagers and 55% of young adults use online databases at least annually, including 21% and 30% monthly (as compared to 33% and 14% overall, an unfortunate but not surprising finding).

Ø    The “library brand” is books. That’s clear. The suggestion in the report that the library community should find ways to “stretch the brand” is sensible—but that means building from strength, not abandoning that strength. “When prompted,” citizens see many community roles for the library.

There’s a lot more data here, all well presented. Appendix A is 72 pages of supporting tables, some of them repeated from the primary text. Appendix B—which I haven’t read—is an oddity: a random sampling of 10% of the responses to open-ended questions. It’s 2,000-odd statements in five areas, grammatical and spelling problems and all.

So What?

Alane Wilson at It’s all good posted “Alane’s back…” on January 3, 2006, quoting a 1949 book The Library’s Public and viewing the lack of change with alarm. George Needham at It’s all good posted “Public Use of the Library and Other Sources of Information” on January 4, 2006, quoting a 1950 book (with that title) based on 1947 survey work—and George is less alarmed, since he finds substantial improvement in public library use over the past 50-odd years. In 1947, 20% of adults had library cards; now, 75% do. In 1947, 18% had visited a public library within the past year; now, 73% do. He finds evidence that librarians have done what 1947 respondents suggested. If you’ve seen circulation figures from 50 years ago, you’d be hard-pressed to say public libraries aren’t being used far more.

George notes the biggest consistency: People don’t see libraries as a primary information source, and never have. “The ubiquity of the web is making it even less likely that a formal institution like the library, with all our rules, service policies, limited hours, and other historical baggage, is ever going to change that.” I’d go further: People are sensible—and it would not be sensible for most people to view public libraries as a primary information source. I have to quote the final paragraph in that post:

The best use of the Perceptions report is to use a triage approach. Look at what respondents have said they want, and then figure out: a.) what you already offer but that you need to be more “in your face” about advertising; b.) what you could do by realigning resources, eliminating redundancies, or changing legacy policies; and c.) pipedreams. Just make sure not to confuse what you can’t do (pipedreams) with what you don’t want to do (because it’s always been done this way)!

The Army’s old recruiting jingle never said “Be all that you want to be.” It said, “Be all that you can be.” That’s an interesting goal for public libraries, one worth pursuing. I would add to George’s comment that you need to see where you stand in your community—because every community is different.

Read the report. Recognize what has and hasn’t changed. Don’t panic. Do see where it and many other reports and conversations lead you.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 6, Number 3, Whole Issue 73, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at RLG.

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