May 18, 2022

Pew Internet Releases New Report on Library Services (Plus Commentary)

For additional comments, see below.

Report Summary

by Meredith Schwartz, Library Journal

In a new survey from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, One thing that’s clear is that users don’t know —and they know they don’t know—what libraries have on offer: only about a fifth said they know most or all of what services are available; and almost a third said they knew not much or nothing.

Unsurprisingly, the largest numbers of Americans looked to libraries for well-established services: About 80 percent of respondents say that borrowing books, reference requests, free access to computers and the internet, close coordination with local schools, and free literacy programs for young children are all very important.

But when it comes to newer and less familiar core services, these solid majorities disappear: interest in everything from “ask a librarian” services to apps to technology petting zoos to internal navigation apps to lending kiosks to Amazon-style recommendation engines all hover at about the same level of support, with about a third of respondents strongly interested, and another third somewhat so.

About half of respondents think libraries should offer a broader selection of ebooks, but far fewer are in favor of shrinking the physical stacks: only 20 percent say libraries definitely should, and 36 percent say definitely not.

The survey also suggests that African-Americans and Hispanics are comparatively more receptive to new services than whites are. These groups expressed particular interest in separating library spaces for different services, offering more learning experiences similar to museum exhibits, and helping users digitize material such as family photos or historical documents.

These results in many ways reflect the landmark OCLC perceptions reports which were first conducted in 2005 and updated in 2010.—Meredith Schwartz, News Editor, Library Journal

Direct to Full Text Report

Comments from Gary Price, Editor,

I was planning on going page by page analyzing the report but I think your time would be better spent focusing on a key finding or two in addition to the summary from my colleague Meredith Schwartz above.

Her review of the key findings points out something we talk about often on infoDOCKET: there is a pernicious lack of knowledge about what libraries offer both inside the building and what they make remotely accessible.

If we don’t do a better job getting the word out, our services suffer, because no one is going to do it for us.

So Now What?

Keep in mind: the survey clearly shows that people are open to new services.

Not only do we need to keep offering services that are new (often relating to technology) but many of the services that have been around for a long time are going to be new to many in the community. A few year’s ago NBC used the slogan, “if you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you” when promoting a night of reruns. The same slogan could easily be used by libraries.

Here’s another pop culture reference for you: Library services are not a ‘Field of Dreams’ — if we build it, there’s no guarantee that anyone will come.

Sinking effort into the development of programs and services doesn’t necessarily mean potential users know about them, use them, and keep on using them regularly. A potential user has no chance of using services they don’t know about.

Libraries are Important — But Why?

From the Report:

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. And libraries are touchpoints in their communities for the vast majority of Americans: 84% of Americans ages 16 and older have been to a library or bookmobile at some point in their lives and 77% say they remember someone else in their family using public libraries as they were growing up.

Still, just 22% say that they know all or most of the services their libraries offer now. Another 46% say they know some of what their libraries offer and 31% said they know not much or nothing at all of what their libraries offer.

OK, folks there it is.

Libraries are important to people BUT very few know what the library has to offer. This is a serious, potentially existential, issue for the library community.

I found this paragraph from the report interesting and illustrative. Note one quote comes from a person who has not used her library…yet:

Even the focus group participants who didn’t use their local libraries much said that they would miss them if they were gone. One said that she wanted to live in the sort of community that had a library, even though she personally had not used it yet. Another said that while the loss of her local library would probably not affect her personally, “I look at myself as a member of a community and so it would deeply affect my community”—and therefore have an impact on her as well. Another said: “I prefer to have libraries open to communities where people could not afford what I can afford.”

To this point, while some libraries are doing an outstanding job of marketing and promoting their services to current users as well as potential new users, overall this survey clearly shows the library community as a whole has not and is not doing enough.

While it’s wonderful that people believe that libraries are important to them and their commuities, the lack of knowledge about what a library offers means that people have no chance to use the services available to them.

I’ll say it again: Lack of knowledge about services means a lack of use.

A lack of use can also mean a lack of importance to both individual users and the community as a whole. This is not good news when it comes to receiving funding to continue current services and develop new ones.

If it was just about feeling good about libraries, we might be ok. However, libraries need to show that people use the services that they offer. If not, those who sign the checks will take the funding elsewhere.

Sorry, 22% is Not Enough

From the Report:

In general, Americans feel somewhat well-informed about the various services offered by their local libraries. While about one in five (22%) feel they are aware of “all or most” of the services and programs their public library offers, a plurality (46%) feel they just know of “some” of what their library offers. Another 20% say they know “not much” about services offered by their library, and 11% say they know “nothing at all” about what is available at their library.

More details about what people know vs. what’s actually available are needed. In our view, libraries need to do a much better job.

Many of the librarians in our in-person focus groups agreed that it was difficult to reach patrons and tell them about all the services the library offered. Several said that almost every day, they will be speaking with a patron who had come in for a specific service, and would mention other services or resources and hear the patron reply, “I didn’t know that was available.

Yes, it is challenging but as we said at the outset of this report if library’s don’t do it, no one else is going to do it.

Other Topics

About 46% of those who visited a library in the past 12 months say they visit to use a research database.

I would like to know if this number includes those who only used a library OPAC? If so, what percentage used licensed databases that a library makes available?

About three in ten (31%) of library patrons in the past 12 months say they visit to read or check out printed magazines or newspapers. A focus group member said they stop by the library about once a week to read magazines: “It’s a wonderful way to spend some time if I’ve got it.”

Did these users know that many libraries provide free access to thousands of newspapers and magazines? Have they used this service?

Some 16% of those who visited a library in the past 12 months say they visit to borrow a music CD.

What have services like Spotify, Rhapsody, Rdio, and others done to this number over the past few years? Many of these services offer free access via a web browser.

And what does this chart say about the future? Why do tech users think they don’t need library services? Do they know remotely accessible (via the web) services are available?

 We’re in Business, Let’s Get to It

Library’s need to realize that they are now competing with many services (including Google, Wikipedia, Facebook, and others) for mindshare and use.

Sometimes Google or Wikipedia can do a great job but at other times other tools are needed.

The entire library world must not only market this message in a unified way but also better market and promote the tools and services (including the research professionals who work in them) that the library offers indepedent of how and where it can be accessed.

Perhaps the most important role the library and librarian will today and tomorrow is teaching and training communities essential and constantly changing digital literacy skills.

The library can also play a role in building local collections of web resources. We call it open web collection development.

Direct to Full Text Report

UPDATE: ALA President Maureen Sullivan has issued a statement about the report. You can read it here.

About Gary Price

Gary Price ( is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.