The digital era has brought profound challenges and opportunities to a huge number of institutions and industries, from universities to newspapers to the music industry, in ways both large and small.
Institutions that were previously identified with printed material—and its attendant properties of being expensive, scarce, and obscure—are now considering how to take on new roles as purveyors of information, connections, and entertainment, using the latest formats and technologies.
As shown in the latest research by Pew Internet, funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the impact of digital technologies on public libraries is particularly interesting because libraries serve so many people (about half of all Americans ages 16 and older used a public library in some form in the past year, as of September 2013) and correspondingly try to meet a wide variety of needs.
In recent years, public libraries have continued to add new technologies and formats to their holdings, with the goal of providing patrons resources in whatever form they prefer. Many libraries have also expanded into community centers, serving as unique gathering places in their towns and cities. Today, they offer many events and services, and are experimenting with providing the next generation of “expensive and scarce” resources, from 3-D printers to recording studios.
Work by the PewResearchCenter has shown that print books are still central to Americans’ library use, just as they remain central in Americans’ overall reading habits. In fact, though more Americans than ever are reading e-books (28% of adults ages 18 and older, as of January 2014), few have abandoned print entirely; just 4% of readers read e-books exclusively. Still, many Americans say they would be interested in exploring a range of technological services at public libraries, from personalized reading recommendations and online “Ask a Librarian” services to media kiosks and mobile apps.
Among the broad themes and major findings in this report:
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.