Released: January 22, 2013

Library Services in the Digital Age

Part 5: The present and future of libraries

By , and

Libraries’ strengths

In addition to asking our online panel of library staff members about various services that libraries do offer or might offer in the future, we also asked about what they considered to be libraries’ strengths. One common theme was libraries’ role as a community center, and their connection to patrons and other local institutions:

“I think our strength is in our ties to the community, and the relationships we build with our customers. That should be our focus, and should drive how we develop our programs and services in the future.”

“Libraries are community centers. We are very aware of what is happening locally and have research services and books to meet that demand.”

“Public libraries are very good at partnering with nonprofits, schools, and businesses, which raises the awareness of the importance of literacy in the community. It expands our reach. Libraries should focus on literacy (all kinds), partnerships, 21st Century skills, community needs (health, etc.), and providing welcoming spaces where people can gather.”

“Public libraries continue to be the place where community members can come together to learn, socialize, meet, do business, and educate their children. We do this very well and should continue to focus on this strength.”

“A warm, welcoming and friendly space is hard to find these days, and the public library has the remarkable opportunity to become a community gathering place in communities where such a space is sorely missing.”

“My public library’s strength is in providing entertainment. Most patrons are looking for fiction books, audio books, DVDs. We are a community center for local information and camaraderie, like a general store. People are often isolated from one another, and the library provides a place to exchange ideas of all sorts.”

“Public libraries excel at providing a social hub for any community: free wi-fi, free cards, access to interlibrary loan services, or simply a warm, well-lit place to get out of the weather and feel safe.”

Providing access to books was often cited, but the broader theme was one of providing access to information, in every form:

“A public library is a community buying coop. Very few people can afford access to so many resources on their own, so we pool our taxes together to create the collection and services.”

“[Our strength is] connecting the community with technology and knowledge.”

“The library is the meeting point of knowledge and information; it is a place where creativity can be nurtured. Patrons are not judged or graded, but come in and are free to access all the library has to offer. Libraries should continue to offer all means of giving access to knowledge that they currently offer (books, CDs, DVDs, computers, ebooks) and stay on top of new ways to access knowledge (iPads, cloud computing, software tools, etc.)”

In addition to simply providing access to information, many librarians said that libraries’ strengths lie in literacy efforts that help people find and use that information on their own; this included not only early childhood literacy efforts and reading programs for children and teens, but also helping patrons learn how to use computers, e-readers, and other devices:

“One of our biggest services and strengths is helping those who do not have a computer at home and/or are unfamiliar with computers and need assistance. Libraries have become the community ‘tech help’ center. We also help patrons find government documents on the web. Often this is the only place these documents are available. We also help patron search for jobs and fill out online job applications.”

“We should be THE destination for parents with young children, both for entertainment and education.”

“[Our strengths are] providing early literacy for kids, providing help for students of all ages, providing information and pleasure reading and viewing for adults and seniors. Keeping up with technology for our patrons. Providing a sense of community: we work very closely with many agencies in our community that serve kids, teens, adults and seniors. We try to coordinate services not complete.”

“[Libraries] are the poor man’s university. We provide literacy, and outreach, and research, and job and career assistance, and assistance to small businesses, and so many other essential services to the community and society.”

What should be libraries’ “guiding principle”?

We also asked library staff what they thought was the main mission of public libraries—what libraries’ “guiding principle” should be as they faced new circumstances and considered various changes:

“To offer knowledge and information to the community through books, online resources, programs and to encourage a life-long love of reading whether for education, enlightenment or entertainment.”

“Public libraries should be about educating the public to survive in today’s world. That involves not only the basic literacy that comes with books, but also a digital literacy to interact with the government and economy as it becomes increasingly paperless.”

“Libraries should be the social hub of the community and to do that the customers have to be able to use cell phones in the library, congregate around computers, sit and visit, laugh out loud and be noisy. The main part of the library should be devoted to this and quiet spaces should not be in any open areas, but should be in smaller cubicles.”

“To help their communities become the best they can be, by addressing community deficiencies. It’s much more than focusing on ‘reading’ literacy.”

“[Libraries should be] unbiased information facilitators.”

“The public library should be the disseminator of reference materials, reading materials and the provider of computer access to the general public. The guiding principle should be to keep abreast of all ways to get info to the public and to provide it free of charge. The library should always provide programs to introduce young readers to the world of literacy and research.”

“To meet the communities’ needs for information, acculturation, literacy and personal contact.”

“I think our guiding principle should be ‘access.’ We provide access to the world of information and entertainment.”

“We are free to all, and free for all: all are welcome.”

“Libraries should be a community gathering place.”

“In my opinion, the idea of connection is what is most important. We are here to help people find their place in the community, provide access to information and services, and help people connect through the stories they love.”

Things to change

We also asked library staff about what things libraries should change going forward. Many spoke of a need to be more flexible, to adapt to new technologies and open the library to more activities. Others felt that some libraries were chasing new technology trends and programming at the expense of their core competencies.

“[We need to stop] holding on to collections trying to have the breadth and depth that we had in the `80s. What people want now is different, and how they access it is different. We have to give up on being the ‘archival public library’ and move toward instant services.”

“We are at a crossroads in our area where we are dealing with an older generation who doesn’t mind change as long as they can still check out the books they want and the new generation who wants and needs updates which we cannot afford.”

“As our population ages, focus of special services to seniors—hearing devices, viewing devices, help services like carrying books to their cars, grabbers to get books off shelves, computer classes directed to seniors, programming specific to seniors, have walkers and wheelchairs available.”

“It seems that many libraries are struggling with an identity crisis, the next and newest thing to offer patrons around the corner. Our staff sometimes feels pushed and prodded to offer so may services with limited staff, space and time.”

“I am concerned about the constant demand to ‘keep up with technology’ when information is where I place my emphasis. There will always be another device, another way to access the information, and I am now in a position where I am like a salesman, not a librarian.”

“Stop trying to be all things to all people. Find out what communities want from us and provide that service.”

Another thread was making libraries more accessible and welcoming to more members of the community:

“We need to change the concept of the library as a restricted, quiet space—we bustle, we rock, we engage, but so many people in the community do not know this.”

“Library workers should look for more ways to seek patrons out. Everyone needs help but no one wants to ask, myself included. I have been impressed by the reference training I have seen at my library in order to better help people access information. More of this would be great.”

“Engage the digital natives. Promote online services more. Promote [libraries’] place as a neutral space. Promote the added value of professional.”

Many librarians also said that public libraries should partner more with other organizations and go out into the community to engage with new audiences:

“Some libraries believe that customers should come to the library—we can’t [wait] for folks to come in to our buildings. We have to be extremely proactive and get out into our communities to show all the services we offer to support our communities.”

“Public librarians should reach out to school librarians, academic librarians, special librarians in the community as all libraries and library personnel in many ways have a common goals of providing unbiased information, promoting reading, promoting learning, promoting community, etc. We can do all of this better together rather than trying to do it separately.”

“Libraries need to be more in the face of the public. There are thousands of people out there who have never been encouraged to use the library, who think it is just for scholars and computer users.”

“Libraries are not good at marketing their resources and services. People don’t know what the library offers. The library is not on many people’s radar. That is one of the biggest problems at my library.”

Along the same lines, several library staff members said that they felt the current layout of most libraries was an impediment to patrons, who are often confused by the Dewey Decimal system and may have difficulty finding or browsing for books:

“Libraries should explore other ways to organize our materials (Deweyless? bookstore model?). Our goal is to make our resources easy to find. Libraries need to look at modern ways to do that. Libraries should look at what barriers (rules) we have that impede the use of our resources.”

“We are losing the concept of browsing and the new bookstore model adopted by some libraries is not the answer. I have worked in a library with it and when it was new patrons thought it was a good thing. The more they had to use it the less they liked it and it was eventually changed back.”

“Allow for straying from the Dewey Decimal system and even [alphabetize] by author. I know a lot of libraries have done this but ours hasn’t. As a librarian, I love [the Dewey Decimal system] because I can find most any particular item right where it is supposed to be! But as a patron and a mom I find it cumbersome.”

“We need to be more focused on user experience. Users don’t care about Dewey numbers, they want to be able to find things themselves easily and our online catalogs, building layouts and database vendors need to help patrons easily. We as library professionals need to focus on user experience as well.”

Library innovations

When we asked library staff about the innovations and new services that they were most excited about, we received a range of responses. Having more digital materials available was high on the list, with many librarians said that they would love to have more e-books available, and also to offer more tablets and e-readers for checkout:

“I would love to have a bunch of tablet readers of one kind or another to have “the classics” on, or philosophy or other more “endangered” literary species that often get weeded because people don’t read them that often. I want a library where there is SO much to be found that it is a wonderful path of things to read and learn about! Money is the issue.”

“The top thing that our library would like to see happen is for ILS providers to figure out a way for patrons to have a single sign on authentication for discovery of all catalog and database content. Patrons hate the time it takes to authenticate for each database they want to explore. . . . Netbooks, tablets and readers for checkout. And preloading them with hot books is a great idea.”

“Local collection of e-books instead of the countywide/statewide model. A method to provide e-books to the local community first before they are available throughout the whole county. A better method for local stats regarding e-book usage.”

“We recently began circulating Rokus with HuluPlus, Netflix and Amazon Prime loaded onto them. As far as I know we are the first library in the world to do this. This type of out-of-the-box technologies are making a huge difference to the demographics we are reaching. I would like to further those types of technological innovations and push the envelope on the public’s perception of what libraries offer. These types of initiatives do cost money and staff time to develop the program—but if it is important enough, the money can be found.”

“I would love to have a really accessible web site complete with mobile apps, etc. I really, really want to be able to afford e-books.”

“I want to be able to incorporate iPads into my story time and school-age programming, and I want to be able to include ‘appvisory’ services for caregivers so that they can utilize technology with their children in informed, intentional ways.”

Others wanted radio-frequency identification (RFID) tracking systems for books, as well as self-service options that would allow patrons to check out and renew materials.

“I’d love to see more materials handling automation that the public can see. Sorters are expensive, but they provide a great deal of staff time savings and patrons love watching them.”

“RFID. I keep hearing from other libraries how great it is for tracking materials and such, but the higher ups are not yet sure if it will be worth implementing in my library (cost, mainly).”

Many librarians said they were intrigued by the idea of makerspaces, or workshops where patrons can work on hands-on projects and collaborations. Similarly, several library staff members said they wished their library could offer digitization resources for local history materials, professional-grade office services such as videoconferencing, as well as renovated spaces that would encourage collaboration and allow the library to offer more types of services:

“Maker/hacker spaces! We need places for people to work collaboratively on all sorts of projects, digital or otherwise. Our educational system is doing a great job giving people factual and technical knowledge, but creativity is lacking, which is a huge problem for innovation. Libraries can be the place where you put what you’ve learned at school to work.”

“The creation of makerspaces in the library. Places where people can create and complete personal projects. This could be a robotics project or a recording studio, or a publishing kiosk.”

“Maker spaces—if I had the space and the staff/funding, we’d be soldering in here RIGHT NOW.”

“I’m most excited by the shift away from collection to creation, and to the assumption of services not historically affiliated with the library (e.g., digital curation, publishing).”

“Moving patrons from concept of using library to absorb information to patrons who can use the library for creative expression.”

“We would like to try the Espresso book printing machine, maker spaces (3D printers, etc.), integrated web/catalog services like BiblioCommons, and of course, learning labs like YouMedia.”

“It would be a thrill to double or triple our public computers, and to add printing services that would allow for patrons to print in color, print larger-formatted items, print photos, etc. It would be really cool if we could loan/rent/sell USB thumb drives for patrons to use to transfer files.”

Several librarians also said that their goal for future innovations would be to reach patrons in the community, to bring library services to them. This included book drops around the community, kiosks, transportation to and from the library, and expanded mobile services:

“I would like to get library kiosks into the community. I’d also love to add a ‘drive-through’ pick-up window to make getting library materials as easy as getting fast food. I’d happily remove any barriers to use that still exist. We are currently trying to work out the logistics of rotating loaning collections of large print books to nursing homes in our district. We recently extended our homebound delivery program to include weekly group delivery to a local retirement center where many of the residents no longer drive.”

“I am very excited about the mobile options we offer our patrons. First, it attracts younger 20-something patrons who might drift away from libraries between school and parenthood. Second, it offers our more distant patrons an option of accessing information.”

“Teen programs (as opposed to recruiting individuals to volunteer and/or work as pages at this library). We have funding issues, but the bigger problem is geographic and transport related. We cannot bring together a critical mass of young people at one time and one place to do whatever.”

“I’m excited about the technological advances that make the library available 24/7/365 worldwide. I like to say that if you have a valid library card and access to the Internet, you can use your home library for research on a business trip in China at midnight. Or check out a novel to read on safari while at the Nairobi airport. That’s exciting.”

Finally, many librarians said that they were excited about ways to connect with more members of their library’s community and provide services that are truly relevant to their needs:

“We sometimes have communication gaps with patrons that speak limited English; perhaps we could model a volunteer program that recruits bilingual teens and seniors as translation volunteers. It could serve to enrich the lives of our seniors, and show teens the value of being bilingual while having the potential to help everyone communicate better without a huge impact on our budget. Another idea would be to bring bilingual teens together with elders to help them write down and translate life stories leaving a legacy that can be treasured by their families and community.”

“We offer a program each year aimed at helping patrons navigate through the maze of Medicare Part D enrollment. We have seven weeks of workshops where we work one-on-one with seniors and provide them with printouts of the three top drug programs that best suit their current prescription needs. This program makes us all feel very good about what we do and our patrons continue to express their thanks long after the programs are over. This will continue since there is little to no cost involved.”

“The main thing our customers wanted was more hours so we gave it them—we expanded Friday night hours and started closing at 9:00 PM (instead of 6:00 P.M.) Public response has been overwhelmingly positive.”

“We did a great outreach to in-home day card providers utilizing college student volunteers, adult volunteers and staff. Unfortunately staff was cut so drastically that we had to drop the program despite the use of volunteers for the majority of the program. We have started using community volunteers to coordinate adult programming, again due to staffing cuts. It has forced us to really focus on identifying the type of programming of most interest—which turns out not to be author visits, but science, opera and family game days.”

Roadblocks and concerns

In discussing some of the issues they have faced that so far have prevented them from implementing their ideal library services, countless library staff members cited restrictions on budgets and staff time—and in some cases staff or administrative interest:

“We need more staff to do anything at all. Innovations are exciting, but few and far between in terms of having the staff or budget to implement any. We love the self-service and automation options, but can’t implement them at our price point.”

“The largest obstacle to . . . innovation in my library is a general reluctance to take the first step forward—the administration is overly hesitant to make any changes to services, even small ones, for fear of what repercussions could be for other branches in the library district and for other programs. I do not see these repercussions as risks, however, but as positive moving forward.”

“We have over 150 people on a waiting list for our computer classes to be offered next month. The demand is high but there are just not enough staff and they will not pay for anymore staff.”

“Everyone struggles to keep up with the changing technology, but that has been part of librarianship for a long time.”

Other librarians had concerns about some of the potential innovations and changes that they’ve encountered:

“I am not personally excited about the mobile technology—it doesn’t apply to me or most of my staff. We are considered dinosaurs, but we have our reservations based upon our own experiences about the need for privacy, possibility of identity theft, social media problems. We understand that the younger generation will live like this probably forever, not especially concerned about negative issues at all. On that note, I would enjoy learning and watching more real-life examples of various apps for mobile devices. With time, some of us old-timers will probably relate to some of it, just like we have adjusted to computers.”

“I am pretty negative about the ‘maker’ movement in libraries. If I had wanted to teach people how to make stuff I would have been a teacher. I think libraries are more about helping people learn for themselves. We set them on the path of learning, but do not hold their hands walking down the road. I don’t want to see libraries become publishers or creators.”

“I really don’t like what I see at the library I where I work. We’re pushing out the patrons who really need us. We’re placing too much emphasis on being a place to ‘hang out’ rather than meeting the needs of our patrons. Our administration turns a deaf ear to our pleas for the materials and education our patrons ask us for (more books, classes, etc.) and instead are fixated on e-books and coffee machines.”

“We need to train ourselves to be more knowledgeable about the new formats of digital materials we are offering. At my branch, we often refer user problems with e-readers and other devices to those staffers who own such devices personally or have experience with them. We all need to know how to address such queries.”

“I think I am a bit old-fashioned. I am in no way against automation or e-materials, [but] I do not think it is our job to push them on the communities. I want them available. I want people to be comfortable with them and be able to utilize them through our offerings. I do not want to empty the library of hands-on material because automated materials are available unless I know/believe automation is the best option. Look at the LPs coming back. How can we say hands-on materials are a thing of the past?”

Cite this publication: Kathryn Zickuhr, Lee Rainie and Kristen Purcell. “Library Services in the Digital Age.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (January 22, 2013) http://libraries.pewinternet.org/2013/01/22/library-services/, accessed on July 23, 2014.