Wednesday, January 04, 2006

"Public Use of the Library and Other Sources of Information"

Alane's post below reminded me of two things: first, I made a conscious effort not to write anything beyond thank you notes while I was off for the holidays, and I make no apologies for that!

Second, there is another report of the same vintage as the Public Library Inquiry that reinforces the report Alane references. Public Use of the Library and Other Sources of Information, by Angus Campbell and Charles A. Metzner (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, 1950) "presents the major findings of a survey undertaken by the Survey Research Council for the Public Library Inquiry." The field work was done in 1947, and was delivered to the Public Library Inquiry in 1948.

However, I see the differences between the two reports as indicating some important strides libraries have made in the past half century. Two key examples: The 1947 results indicated that about one fifth of adults in the US had a library card. Compare that to the 75% of US respondents to the Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources survey who say they have library cards. In the OCLC report, 73% of the respondents said that had visited a public library in the previous year; in 1947, only 18% reported that they had done so. The 1947 report also said that library use was "highly concentrated among a small percentage of the population," that percentage being the highly educated book readers. Obviously, libraries have broadened their nets to draw in more users.

There is considerable discussion in the OCLC report of the library brand equaling "books." No great surprise there, despite our best efforts to become more relevant. (Ladle on as much irony as you'd care to here.) The interesting thing to me is that the 1947 report, like the OCLC report, asked people to make suggestions about what libraries could do to make themselves more attractive. In several cases, the answers given in both surveys are exactly the same: advertise more; have more current materials; be open longer/more convenient hours. But in several cases, the 1947 report pointed directly to changes that librarians have made. In 1947, people wanted to be able to view and rent movies at the library. They wanted to be able to borrow records. They wanted to have study groups, and group meeting space in the library. Over the last decades, public libraries have added all these services, and the results can be seen in the expanded participation numbers in the OCLC report.

The biggest consistency has been in people failing to see libraries as a primary information source. Librarians have not been able to make the leap from being a storehouse of recorded information (books, magazines, videos, audios) to being an active partner in the information gathering and evaluating process. 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.

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)!


Anonymous said...

Good post. I almost commented on Alane's post, particularly the comment about not being adequate for any public, but didn't.

As you probably know, I've been saying for years--in books and elsewhere--that "The Information Place" is one of the worst mottos ALA ever used, because it's wrong on all three words.

More specifically, public libraries have never been most people's primary source of current information, and it's not at all clear that such a role makes any sense. ("Most people" is important here: Good public libraries can fill some of that role for the seriously disadvantaged, one of the safety net roles.) On the other hand, as you note, most Americans do have library cards; most Americans do make some use of current public library service; and (my note) most Americans seem willing to pay for those big buildings full of books and other materials, even if they aren't personally using them that much.

As I'm working on refining a monster essay that will be the next Cites & Insights, these issues come strongly into play. (Turns out it's really hard to make sense of what's being said about a current bandwagon without understanding what the writers believe public libraries should and can be. Big surprise there...)

Stuff on other weblogs suggests that a new set of conversations is in order within public and (separately) academic librarianship about the real-world roles of libraries--and that these conversations have to delineate types of libraries and be held by librarians and library people, not just or primarily library schools and information scientists.

Ivan Chew said...

Thanks for the post. It made me think and I blogged about it. Hey, you should turn on the "links to this post" feature in blogger, so that you can see who's linking to yours.

George said...

Walt, I wish I'd thought of the connection to people being willing to put their tax money into libraries as further evidence of the changes in public perception of public libraries.

But I also wish we would hold those conversations about the evolving role of libraries together: public librarians, academic librarians, school media specialists, teachers, faculty, students, general public...

We are too small a profession to focus so intently on the modifiers instead of the noun. If we really want to be of use to our users, the best thing we could do is to try to make our services as seamless as possible. Most users don't give a darn about how we subdivide the profession; they just want what they want, when they want it.

Ivan, thanks for your comments as well. Alane has turned on the "links to this post" function, so we should be in business.

Anonymous said...


Well, this is probably a discussion that needs to be held in person or somewhere other than attached to this post, but:

I think the stakes, the "publics," and the situation are fairly dramatically different in some types of libraries.

Some (many?) special librarians are justified in thinking of libraries as "information sources" that can be made virtual, and in some cases have been.

The relationships between public acceptance and funding, and between short-term mission and long-term mission, are different for academic libraries than for (most) public libraries.

I agree that everyone has a stake in the conversations--but "the library" doesn't work as an umbrella term any more than "the public" does.

School libraries? I'm a Californian. I don't understand that term. (That's actually way too harsh, but it's too close to the truth for comfort.) And the basis for restoring/maintaining school libraries is, I think, different from that for improving/maintaining public libraries, which is different from that for improving/maintaining academic libraries. All related, but also distinctly different.