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Technology, books, and reference librarians “very important,” report says

Access to free technology, the ability to borrow books, and the availability of reference librarians are the key services now offered by public libraries, according to survey results released in January 2013 by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project.

Among Americans ages 16 years and older, 80 percent say borrowing books is a “very important” service libraries provide, and 80% say reference librarians fall into the same “very important” category. Free access to computers and the internet finished in a virtual tie, at 77percent.

Large proportions of Americans ages 16 and older say they would embrace even wider uses of technology at libraries and would be likely to use the following services:

  • Online research services allowing patrons to pose questions and get answers from librarians (73 percent).
  • Access to technology “petting zoos” to try out new devices (69 percent).
  • “Amazon”-style customized book/audio/video recommendation schemes that are based on patrons’ prior library behavior (64 percent).
  • Apps-based access to library materials and programs (63 percent).
  • “Redbox”-style lending machines or kiosks located throughout the community where people can check out books, movies, or music without having to go to the library itself (63 percent).
  • GPS navigation apps to help patrons find local materials inside library buildings (62 percent).

These findings are based on the Pew project’s national survey of 2,252 Americans age 16 and older conducted in October and November 2012, using cellphone and land lines and in English and Spanish. The survey has an overall margin of error of ±2.3 percent.

A 2012 Pew Internet and American Life study indicates that 58 percent of Americans age 16 and older have a library card, and even more—69 percent—say the library is important to them and their families. Among city dwellers, 71 percent say the library is important to them and 59 percent have library cards. In the suburbs, the figures are similar: 69 percent say the library is important and 61 percent have library cards. In rural areas, where libraries are fewer and farther between, the figures are lower: 62 percent of residents say the library is important and 48 percent have library cards.

“Libraries have reinvented themselves to become technology hubs”

A coauthor of the report referred to the transformation that libraries have undergone in recent years—and are continuing to undergo today as they address the public’s needs in an age of rapid social and technological change.

“In the past generation, public libraries have reinvented themselves to become technology hubs for their communities,” Kathryn Zickuhr, a research analyst at the Pew Internet and American Life Project,wrote. “Many patrons really appreciate that and anticipate the prospect of getting new technology-centered activities. Yet, they also have divided views about what to do with the printed books at libraries. In the evolving world of library services, this could be an ongoing struggle as librarians try to juggle conflicting patron desires.”

Only 20 percent of survey respondents said libraries should “definitely” move some printed books and stacks out of public locations to free up space for tech centers, reading rooms, meeting rooms, and cultural events. Thirty-nine percent said libraries “maybe” should do that, and 36 percent said libraries should “definitely not” do that.

Asked about changes libraries could make to add to their services to the public, respondents recommended coordinating more closely with local schools (85 percent), offering free literacy programs to help young children (82 percent), having more comfortable spaces for reading, working, and relaxing (59 percent), and offering a broader selection of ebooks (53 percent).

Libraries “embrace this broad vision,” ALA president says

“The American Library Association [ALA] is pleased to have this new data that both confirms and expands our understanding of why and how people use our nation’s public libraries,” Maureen Sullivan, president of the American Library Association, said in a statement regarding the Pew report. “As our nation’s librarians look to the future, the [report] confirms that people want it all: access to computers and technology training; print books and early literacy; and mobile and online services that allow the library resources to be available 24/7.”

“The good news,” Sullivan added, “is that our nation’s libraries embrace this broad vision of meeting community needs in person and online and already are working to implement it. The challenge, of course, is determining how to best meet growing information and learning demands at a time when many libraries still face flat or reduced budgets.”

Sullivan highlighted three findings from the report:

  • Ninety-one percent of respondents said public libraries are important to them. Millions of people have used library services in the past year, and half of those who visited their library said they did so to get help from a librarian.
  • Libraries continue to bridge the digital divide. “Libraries ensure that all people have access to books in all formats, to the internet, and to training that enables them to use technology and research resources,” Sullivan said. “People use technology services to do research, to connect with others via email and social media, and to obtain health, government, and employment information.”
  • Libraries continue to evolve and find new ways to bring value to their communities. “About 70% of public libraries offer digital/virtual reference and information services to answer patron questions,” Sullivan said. “Ninety percent of libraries offer formal and informal technology training to patrons.”

“I continue to be inspired by the ways in which libraries are reinventing themselves in order to continue to reach and serve our diverse communities,” Sullivan continued. “Some examples of this innovation are: Contra Costa County (Calif.) Library-a-Go-Go kiosks; the New Canaan (Conn.) High School Library’s Participatory Platforms for Learning; and the Right Service/Right Time mobile website from the Orange County (Fla.) Library System, which connects patrons with government services through their smartphones. Libraries also have expanded their commitment to early literacy through programs such as Every Child Ready to Read and the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.”

Public libraries serve more than 95 percent of population

Public libraries served 96.4 percent of the total U.S. population in 2010, according to a report released January 22, 2013, by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). In 2010, there were 8,951 public libraries in the 50 states and the District of Columbia, with 17,078 public library branches and bookmobiles.

“Public libraries in America continue as strong anchors for their communities, valued by the people they serve and striving to meet the changing needs of their service populations,” said IMLS Director Susan Hildreth. “The survey reports decreasing levels of state and federal funding for public libraries, with local support providing a greater portion of funding than ever before.”

And, Hildreth continued, kids were key: “Public libraries continue to be an essential service for the nation’s children. The study finds that attendance at children’s programs reached 60.5 million and circulation of children’s materials increased 28.3 percent over the last 10 years.”

Other highlights from the report:

  • Public libraries offered 3.75 million programs to the public, an average of at least one program a day for every library system in the country. The majority of these programs (61.5 percent) were designed for children. Attendance at programs continued to rise, indicating an increased demand for these services.
  • Public libraries circulated 2.46 billion materials, the highest circulation in 10 years, representing a continued increasing trend. Circulation of children’s materials increased by 28.3 percent from 2000 to 2010 and comprised more than one-third of all materials circulated in public libraries.
  • While books in print made up 87.1 percent of the physical collection, the share of nonprint materials, including audio and video materials and electronic books, increased. The number of ebooks tripled from fiscal 2003; in fiscal 2010, 18.5 million ebooks were available for circulation.
  • Public-access computer use continued to be one of the fastest-growing services in public libraries. Public libraries have responded to the demand by increasing access, doubling the number of public computers in the past 10 years.

The full report and other data sets are available on the IMLS website.

2012 Average Library Outputs Per $1,000 of Expenditures, By Population Group
1,000,000 AND MORE
Visits 224.8 182.9 182.6 163.4 158.9 150.1 151.2 142.8 133.8
Circulation 295.4 261.7 263.4 256.8 263.5 248.8 253.2 249.9 250.5
Program attendance 20.1 14.8 12.6 10.9 10.4 8.7 7.8 6.8 7.1
Reference transactions 24.8 23.6 20.3 19.2 27.5 31.0 35.9 31.0 34.8
In-library use 75.0 54.6 42.8 25.0 35.7 42.6 51.5 40.0 54.0
Registered borrowers 33.2 23.2 24.1 20.7 19.7 18.7 18.5 15.6 18.5
Source: 2012 PLDS Statistical Report


Public libraries strive to meet demands of expanding technology

Despite facing fiscal challenges on all sides—local, state, and federal—public libraries are redoubling their efforts to meet the expanding technology needs of their communities. Public computer and Wi-Fi use increased last year at more than 60% of libraries. Nationwide, more than 60 percent of libraries report offering the only free Internet access in their communities. More than 90 percent of public libraries now offer formal or informal technology training.

More than three-quarters of libraries (76.3 percent) offer access to ebooks, a significant increase (9.1percent) from last year. Additionally, ebook readers are available for checkout at 39.1 percent of public libraries.

These are among the findings of the 2011–2012 Public Library Funding and Technology Access Study (PLFTAS), the product of a collaboration between the ALA Office for Research and Statistics and the Information Policy and Access Center at the University of Maryland. Begun in 1994, PLFTAS is the largest existing study of internet connectivity in public libraries. Its findings provide an annual “state of the library” report on the technology resources brokered by public libraries and the funding that enables no-fee public access to these resources. PLFTAS is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Library-visit rate dips, perhaps due to that expanding technology

The average number of library visits per capita for all reporting libraries in a 2012 Public Library Association (PLA) survey was 6.61 per year, a slight decrease from the previous year. A decrease was reported by libraries serving all population sizes, possibly because of increased use of remote or online library services including reference services, downloadable materials, and online databases. The largest decrease was reported by libraries serving populations of fewer than 25,000 people, but these libraries still show the largest number of visits per capita.

The 2012 version of PLA’s Public Library Data Service (PLDS) survey collected fiscal 2011 information on finances, library resources, annual use figures, and technology from U.S. and Canadian public libraries. Responses were received from 1,829 libraries, a response rate of 19.7 percent (an increase of 2.4 percent from the previous year). However, many libraries had to be contacted for more data, and only 1,579 libraries were included in the final data analysis.

Library visits per capita continued to show the highest numbers for libraries serving smaller populations; the smallest libraries saw an average of 3.83 more visits per capita than libraries serving more than a million people, according to the PLDS survey. Libraries with legal service areas of fewer than 9,999 people tended to register visits from a larger proportion of their population. Libraries serving fewer than 5,000 people had average holdings per capita of more than five times those of the largest libraries.

Similarly, figures for number of reference transactions were lower than in the previous year. The average number of programs also decreased, but the average program attendance increased, as did the number of interlibrary loans. Oddly, 43 percent fewer libraries reported electronic circulation (referring to digital or downloadable materials as opposed to physical materials), but among those that did report electronic circulation, the usage doubled.

Small libraries spend more, proportionately, on young adult services

As its special focus for 2012, the PLDS survey asked about young adult (YA) services. In response to the question, “Does your library provide young adult services?” (1,448 responses), 1,185 libraries (81.8 percent) said yes and 263 (18.2 percent) no. Of the responding libraries that did not offer YA services, almost half (46.6 percent) served populations of fewer than 5,000 people and 70.3 percent populations of 5,000–9,999.

On the other hand, the smaller libraries dedicated a larger proportion of spending on YA materials than their larger counterparts—more than 9 percent among libraries serving fewer than 10,000 people as opposed to 4 percent–7percent at larger libraries.


Also, 65.7 percent of the libraries that do offer YA services have a specific YA section on the library Web page, but even the 384 libraries without a YA section maintain a presence on social network sites:

  • 12.6 percent indicated that they have a social web presence.
  • 25 percent indicated they have a presence on Facebook for young adults.
  • 5.8 percent indicated they have a presence on Twitter for young adults.
  • 5.8 percent indicated they have a presence for young adults on other social networks such as blogs, Flickr, Myspace, Pinterest, YouTube, Google+, and Tumblr.
Mean Salaries Paid, Public Libraries, 2010 and 2012
  2010 2012 CHANGE N
Director/dean/chief officer $100,106 $96,187 -3.9% 332
Deputy/associate/assistant director $77,633 $80,044 +3.0% 371
Dept. head/branch manager/coordinator/senior manager $65,875 $63,531 -3.6% 2,521
Manager/supervisor of support staff $54,863 $53,877 -1.8% 1,115
Librarian who does not supervise $52,851 $50,276 -4.9% 3,305
Beginning librarian $48,749 $46,168 -5.3% 603
TOTAL       8,247


Libraries struggle to recover pre-recession funding levels

After more than four years of consecutive budget cuts, it is unclear whether libraries will be able to recover the funding needed to return to pre-recession levels of staffing, open hours, collections, technology services, and salary levels (as shown in the table above). While a segment of U.S. public libraries reported budget improvements, many libraries continued to grapple with the cumulative negative effect of ongoing budget woes.

Average library income reported in the 2012 PLDS survey was lower than in the previous year—not surprising, considering the condition of federal, state, and local funding sources. Average library income was $46.68 per capita of the legal service area, a decrease of 5.5 percent from the previous year. Library expenditures were $41.95 per capita, off 7.8 percent.

Average income and expenditures were unchanged for libraries serving most population groups, except for the smallest libraries, which showed decreases of more than 14 percent in per capita income and similar decreases in expenditures. Per capita income and expenditures were largest for the libraries serving 25,000–49,999 people, followed by those serving populations of 50,000–99,999; they were smallest for libraries serving the largest populations.

Voters showed their appreciation for libraries at the polls in November 2012 by supporting a series of millages and bond issues for operations and construction around the nation. Denver (Colo.) Public Library, Prince George’s County (Md.) Memorial Library System, Broadview (Ill.) Public Library District, and St. Louis County (Mo.) Library all won voter approval for bond issues or millages that will sustain or improve library operations; libraries also fared well at the polls in New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Texas, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming.

However, also in Wyoming, an initiative to raise $29.7 million for a new building for the Natrona County Library lost by 588 votes in a turnout of some 32,000 people overall. In Kentucky, Campbell County’s proposal to increase a millage to build a new branch was defeated 62 percent to 38 percent. And among the defeated levies in Michigan was a $65 million bond proposal that would have funded a new library building in downtown Ann Arbor. The initiative met organized resistance: The group Protect Our Libraries campaigned against the proposal with a web presence and a $21,000 ad buy.

Libraries With a Website (and What's on Them)
  Number of Reporting Libraries Percentage Responding Affirmatively
Libraries with a website 1,457 94.70%
Libraries with a website that offers...    
   Program information/events calendar 1,373 95.7%
   Online public access catalog (OPAC) 1,367 95.6%
   Library-purchased online database 1,361 79.3%
   Social networking such as Facebook, blogs, photo-sharing 1,365 77.7%
   Library staff-created content (podcasts/vodcasts, booklists) 1,356 68.9%
   Virtual reference services via email, chat, text messaging, etc. 1,344 61.2%
   RSS feeds 1,344 35.8%
   Library apps for mobile evices 1,353 34.7%
   Ability for patrons to add book reviews to the catalog 1,356 31.6%
   Online book clubs/discussion forums 1,358 23.6%
   Streaming live programs 1,357 4.7%
Source: 2012 PLDS Statistical Report.


Changes on the technology front

More than 95 percent of libraries with a website include information on programs and events, as well as access to an online public access catalog (OPAC), as shown in the table above. Inclusion of online databases stood at 79 percent, and almost 78 percent of libraries included social networking features in their online presence. A question about virtual reference service, however, was reformatted and combined into one general question, unlike the previous year’s separate questions. The 2012 result shows a slight increase (2.1 percent) from the prior year, when 59.1 percent of libraries provided some form of virtual reference.

Most libraries (85.2 percent) said they did not circulate ebook readers, but some reported supporting mobile computing and devices, and about a third (34.7 percent) offered library apps that are accessible on a mobile device.

Elsewhere on the digital front, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in July 2012 announced a $1 million award to support the incorporation and launch of the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), which seeks to bring together the digitized collections of the nation’s libraries and archives and make them freely available to all online.

To be created through a coalition of libraries, archives, museums, and other nonprofit and academic entities in coordination with the Open Knowledge Commons, the DPLA will ultimately serve as a single portal for diverse, interdisciplinary digital archives from a range of institutions, the NEH said in apress release, allowing scholars, students, and others to access multiple collections simultaneously.

The DPLA “will make the cultural heritage of the United States available to anyone with access to the internet,” NEH Chairman Jim Leach said. “We don’t know precisely how a digital library will progress given the unpredictable imaginative capacity of users and the thorny issues of copyright. But we are confident that digital libraries are the logical extension of prior revolutions in the democratization of ideas.”

The DPLA has global implications. It will, for example, work with the European Union to promote interoperability with its Europeana collection, a comparable digital library effort currently under way.


The State of America's Libraries 2013