The January 22, 2013, Pew Internet & American Life Project report “Library Services in the Digital Age” finds that while technology services are increasingly important to library patrons, the need to borrow books and seek assistance from a librarian remains a library’s primary value. Additional service priorities identified as essential by patrons focused on working with schools and children and making a comfortable space available for community use. However, the study also finds that patrons would also value a wider range of technology services and that access to the Internet is rivaling book lending as the most vital service provided by libraries. In fact, according to the study, the majority of patrons who said that their library use declined over the past five years stated that this was because they were able to access books and information online more easily than in, or via, the library.
It is encouraging, if somewhat surprising, to learn that library patrons still place a high value on books and in person consultation with librarians. However, advances in technology are inevitably changing the way libraries function and the way information is disseminated. So while users state that books are still valuable to them, technology is changing how books are being made available. Because of this, libraries need to consider how they can play a larger role in technology education and services in order to better prepare their patrons for these changes. The report finds that the majority of patrons who increased their library use in the past five years did so because they enjoy going to the library with their children and/or grandchildren. This provides a perfect opportunity for libraries to reach out to new and inexperienced users of technology. Librarians need not specialize in technology education themselves but can consider partnering with local schools or non-profits or setting up volunteer programs for teens and adults to teach patrons.
Another notable finding of the Pew report is that the majority of library patrons report having little to no awareness of the services offered by their library, both in the physical library and online. This finding is perhaps more alarming given that the report also indicates that it is often the patrons who might benefit most from library services that seem least aware. Libraries are rapidly increasing the scope and diversity of services offered—for example the rise in maker spaces and information commons. So, that patrons are largely unaware of these advancements is troubling. The Queens Public Library website attempts to address this issue by prominently displaying the word “Services” on its menu bar. As a result, although the Queens Library website is not as attractive as that of the New York Public Library, its users can more readily locate the services available to them. This type of simple adjustment in information organization and user experience can work to reduce the knowledge gap of library users. However, as indicated in the Pew report, simply listing services information on a library website is insufficient, as many patrons are not visiting library websites. Instead, libraries must have a presence outside of the library walls and seek ways to partner with local organizations to engage in community outreach.
The Pew report finds that current technology owners use the library less frequently and suggests that libraries need to consider ways in which they can make the library valuable to this group. At the same time, libraries need to maintain a balance between patrons who value printed books and users who value technology. The need to engage users with digital services—both the tech savvy and the non-tech savvy—appears to be a persistent issue. There must be a way to meet both needs through community based outreach and programing.
Funding, community outreach, and increasing technology services are all required in order to ensure the future of libraries. It is necessary for libraries to move forward by embracing changes in technology and making every effort to assist patrons with these changes. However, I share the concerns of the librarian quoted in the Pew report who worries, “Sometimes I think we are looking at technology as a panacea for everything…” Another librarian similarly asserts, “…I think it is important that libraries be an oasis for quiet thought.” Throughout the report both librarians and patrons praise the library for its value as a community space and a space for reflection. Speaking of the importance of branch libraries in his October 2, 2013, New York Times article “Next Time, Libraries Could Be Our Shelter From the Storm,” Michael Kimmelman writes, “The branches have become our de facto community centers, serving the widest range of citizens–indispensable in countless, especially poorer, more vulnerable neighborhoods.” The challenge is to make the library a place valued by all members of the community it serves.