May 23, 2022

New Report: Pew Internet Releases a Typology of U.S. Public Library Engagement

This is the final report in the Pew Internet public library initiative (funding from Gates Foundation) that was first announced in October 2011.  These initiative studied the, “changing role of public libraries and library users in the digital age. You can review all of the previously released reports here. As many of you know this initiative as produced many well-known and frequently quoted studies.

New Report

The report being released today, a typology (what is a typology?) of public library engagement  in the United States is titled, From Distant Admirers to Library Lovers–and beyond.

It was written by Pew Internet’s Kathryn Zickuhr, Kristen Purcell and Lee Rainie.

Direct to Full Text Report  ||| PDF Version of the Report (131 pages)
An Appendix with Additional Data is Also Available (10 pages; PDF)

Background and Key Findings

  • Public library users and proponents are not a niche group: 30% of Americans ages 16 and older are highly engaged with public libraries, and an additional 39% fall into medium engagement categories.

  • Americans’ library habits do not exist in a vacuum: Americans’ connection—or lack of connection—with public libraries is part of their broader information and social landscape. As a rule, people who have extensive economic, social, technological, and cultural resources are also more likely to use and value libraries as part of those networks. Many of those who are less engaged with public libraries tend to have lower levels of technology use, fewer ties to their neighbors, lower feelings of personal efficacy, and less engagement with other cultural activities.
  • Life stage and special circumstances are linked to increased library use and higher engagement with information: Deeper connections with public libraries are often associated with key life moments such as having a child, seeking a job, being a student, and going through a situation in which research and data can help inform a decision. Similarly, quieter times of life, such as retirement, or less momentous periods, such as when people’s jobs are stable, might prompt less frequent information searches and library visits.
  •  Most Americans do not feel overwhelmed by information today. Some 18% of Americans say they feel overloaded by information—a drop in those feeling this way from 27% who said information overload was a problem to them in 2006. Those who feel overloaded are actually less likely to use the internet or smartphones, and are most represented in groups with lower levels of library engagement (such as Off the Grid, Distant Admirers, and Not For Me).
  • Libraries score high ease of access and use—even among those who are not frequent users:  Fully 91% of Americans ages 16 and older say they know where the closest library is, and 72% live within 5 miles of a library branch. Asked how easy it would be for them to use libraries if they wanted, 93% of Americans ages 16 and older say libraries would be easy for them to visit in person, including 74% of those in the Off the Grid group. Further, 82% of all Americans say library websites would be easy for them to use.
  •  There are people who have never visited a library who still have positive views of public libraries and their roles in their communities: Members of the group we identify as “Distant Admirers” have never personally used a library, but nevertheless tend to have strongly positive opinions about how valuable libraries are to communities—particularly for libraries’ role in encouraging literacy and for providing resources that might otherwise be hard to obtain. Many Distant Admirers say that someone else in their household does use the library, and therefore may use library resources indirectly.

As we noted above the full report runs 172 pages. We plan to share more comments in the future but until then a few early thoughts and a selection of topics we hope more reports from Pew and/or other sources will discuss.

Comments From Gary

1. We hope future reports few Pew and others study the importance (or lack thereof) of  library user privacy. Reader/user privacy is core to the library profession (noted in the ALA ethics statement) but doesn’t appear to get the attention/discussion it should in the electronic age, especially now, post-Snowden. Are we doing enough to protect user privacy? What role(s) should libraries be playing?  Do users know the issues? Do they care? Even if they don’t, should we?

2. This report (and past reports) include a lot about libraries and books. What about other types of resources (e.g. electronic reference databases) and their usage? Are these services useful to certain groups of users? One thing is for sure we don’t do enough to promote their availability, usage, and what they offer vs. Google and other open web databases. How can people use what they don’t know about?

3. An issue we mention regularly on infoDOCKET and talk about in presentations was mentioned in a Pew Internet report a few months ago. It said that while people are positive about library they don’t have a good idea about the services the library offers. You have to believe that some would use the library more and some might use it for the first time IF they were clear on the services available. Would awareness of these services make a difference? Should we be spending money on them?

4. People are positive about the library even if they don’t use it (we read about this type of person today) because, IMHO,  for what it stands for/represents (freedom of expression, freedom of speech, pursuit of knowledge). I think the public library as a physical space is not going away any time soon.

New libraries are being planned, opened, renovated all of the time. What is of concern are the library professionals who work in them.

Of course I am biased  but you would think that with the increasing amount of data to navigate, the challenges with judging credibility, the continued problems with info retrieval, and other “old school” issues not to mention all of the new things we are doing, the public librarian would be the go to person for many. Sadly, I don’t find this to be the case. Nothing new here and it’s the result of lackluster (at best) understanding of what we do and how we do it.

5. This report (and others) have had very little on what users expect from a librarian, the skills they should have, etc.  Do people even know what an info professional does/can do? Do people still find librarians important? Along with marketing the library we must do more to market the professional regardless of where they work. In other words, let’s make it personal.

While the library and librarian ARE about books/ebooks, libraries and librarians have skills that do beyond these services. Does the public understand what 21st librarian skills are about, capable of?

6. We would love to know more on what users expect and know about regarding the library as a non-physical place.

In other words, the public library that’s available to anyone (with a library card from any web accessible computer 24x7x365. Said another way, the “always on” library. Do they even know that this is available? As we continue to become an increasingly mobile we have to do more to let people know the library and often the librarian are available to them even if not in the building.

7. In today’s report we read, “Libraries score high ease of access and use—even among those who are not frequent users…Further, 82% of all Americans say library websites would be easy for them to use.

In this case I’m writing as a library user and someone who visits library web sites around the globe. I have to disagree with this finding. Again, this is only my opinion and although there are excellent library web site, many have some major issues. Not to mention the sites/services that library web sites linked to. Things have gotten better but more work needs to be done.

8. I would love to see how the results we read about it today’s Pew report compare to similar studies from around the globe. The report says, “Americans’ library habits do not exist in a vacuum…” The same must be said about librarians. The Internet and other information technology (the tech we often suggest to others) makes it easy to communicate and learn from our colleagues around the world. We should take advantage of it.

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.