Myth and Reality of the Evolving Patron (ALA 2013)

This was a presentation by Lee Rainie of the Pew Internet and American Life Project of some of the data that Pew has recently gathered. I find Pew’s work fascinating and Rainie an interesting speaker, so I make sure to attend his talks as often as convenient.  As usual, the talk was filled with both data and analysis and covered a lot of ground.  I took as many notes as I could.  This is a boiled-down version, but there’s so much information it’s hard to make this concise.  A recording of the session and the slides are also available (slides are from the conference site).

For those who are not familiar with it, the Pew Charitable Trust is a “fact tank” with many branches, including this branch. They do large-scale social scientific research, largely consisting of telephone surveys. The Internet and American Life Project provides information about how people’s lives are affected by technology.  They don’t advocate for anything and strive to provide information in a neutral and bias-free way.

Rainie pointed out five major changes affecting the way that people use libraries:

  1. Searching and browsing for information have changed with new technology
  2. User behaviors change as people progress through life. It’s not just that people use what’s familiar to them; their behavior changes over time.
  3. Life stressors.  The way people value time has changed with technology. It’s affected the amount of information people have available to them and how people pay attention. Libraries are at the intersection of these needs.
  4. Demographic differences.  Changes in the use of technology are tied to demographics.  Different people are using the library in different ways.
  5. Librarians are innovating and driving change in many ways.  This reshapes user expectations.

However, we are also shaped by inertia.  There is one group of patrons that wants to see new and exciting changes and another group that wants to maintain all the valuable services libraries already offer, and lots of people in between. This is a continuum.

Who’s using the library?  Fifty-nine percent of Americans have used the library either virtually or physically.  Women are more likely to use libraries than men, especially women under the age of sixty-five.  Fewer seniors use the library, but those who do are very active and likely to do many more things with the library.  People with more education and higher income are more likely to use libraries, as are parents of minors, especially mothers.  Parents are more likely to use many services of libraries, not just services for children.

What are people doing in the library? Borrowing print books was the most popular activity among all users, and browsing was also very popular.  Library users under the age of thirty were more likely than others to research topics of interest.  Half of all library users got help from a librarian, but were more likely to do so if they were African American, over fifty, or poor.  While people in these demographics were less likely to use the library, the library users among them were more likely to use services like reference.  Some patrons, especially people of color and young people, enjoyed the library as a quiet place.  Young people’s use of databases is also high.  Women are most likely to attend events for adults, and parents are most likely to avail themselves of online classes offered by the library.

Who uses the library website?  About thirty-nine percent of all adults had access a library website in the past year; women were most likely to access library websites and seniors were least likely. Wealthier and more educated patrons were more likely to use library websites, as were parents.  Thirteen percent had accessed a library website from a mobile device, and they tended to be urban or suburban, college educated, and under fifty.

Rainie identified three tech revolutions that had influenced these changes: the broadband revolution, the mobile revolution, and the social networking revolution.

The broadband revolution has happened since 2000, when almost nobody had broadband at home, to today, when sixty-eight percent of Americans do. Very few still use dialup.  The availability of ubiquitous fast internet access made the internet a much more central part of people’s lives. Many more people began to share information over the internet, forming a new “fifth estate.” If the official media are the fourth estate and value gatekeeping and neutrality, the fifth estate is partisan, personal, and democratized.  For librarians, this means that there is more need to help people make sense of it all.

The mobile revolution has passed the halfway mark; fifty-six percent of Americans now have smart phones, and ninety percent have cell phones of one type or another. One third of Pew respondents have tablets.  Although the data pushes smart phones and tablets together for some analysis, the uses of these devices are very different. Smart phones are for information snacking, which tablets provide a more paper-like experience.  There is a double-screen phenomenon, especially with television; people watch television, but they have their phones with them in case something more interesting happens. Mobile devices encourage multitasking and what Linda Stone calls continuous partial attention.   On the other hand, it is also easier for people to reach deeper levels of knowledge without having credentials or going through gatekeepers. Information is also faster; people can get real-time updates on things that are happening.  Data can be used to navigate physical spaces. Librarians need to think about how data can be used responsibly and without compromising privacy.

The social networking revolution has changed how people use their networks.  Senior citizens are becoming more likely to use online social networks and are enchanted by the restoration of latent bonds and the ability to connect with people who may be dealing with some of the same things they are, especially health issues. Facebook is the biggest social network and is used by sixty-eight percent of Americans; Twitter is comparatively tiny (eighteen percent of Americans use it), but Twitter users are influencers who are deeply engaged with their communities.  Pinterest is almost as large and is also populated by (largely female) influencers.  Tumblr and Instagram are popular among young people.  Despite popular perception, there has not been a large transfer of users from Facebook to Twitter and other sites. However, social network users, especially young people, may segment their social networks by using different services for different kinds of interactions.  The internet has affected the composition and character of social networks. People now have a much larger network with which to interact, and tend to segment it, using different people to meet different social needs. Trust has shifted from institutions to networks.

Social networks provide some of the filtering that the traditional media once did; many people treat their social networks like a newspaper by checking in first thing in the morning. People want what’s relevant to them first of all.  Librarians are exemplars in this regard because they are good at evaluating information and telling people what is new in the world.

Networks are important audiences.  People want to feel like someone is listening. Followers and friends are something to cultivate.  New media are the new neighborhood. Sharing stuff is a prerequisite to forming neighborhoods.

Every dimension of what libraries do is now up for grabs.  People enjoy the ubiquity of information and the independence it affords, but hate noise, interruptions and junk.  Information is abundant where it was once scarce, so libraries’ value no longer comes from the efficiency of bringing information physically into one place.  We can help things go to people where they are and make it meaningful and important to people. Innovation comes in ways of giving people something worthwhile with the time they want to spend.

With the new digital divides, there are new winners and losers. Librarians got into business to ameliorate those schisms, so we want to think about this. We are already thinking about ethics in this environment.

We are serving many different audiences with different needs, different ways of doing things, and different relationships to technology. Most people aren’t aware of all the services libraries offer.  Libraries have a great story to tell about what they are doing and have to make sure that they tell it.  People think that libraries are important to their communities; even people who don’t visit libraries believe this. But they don’t know how innovative libraries have been, so it’s important to make people familiar with the new services that are available.

All of the above is the talk without comment from me.  I found the analysis of how online social networks influence the social networks that people carry around in their heads to be especially interesting; I guess the immediate application is obvious, but I wonder more about what research will come from it (and should probably look into this more). I’ll probably read Rainie’s book on that.   But the question of who uses the internet and for what is also very interesting, and here too, this data seems like it’s just the beginning.

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