Libraries in the Digital Age

A new way of looking at public library engagement in America

March 18, 2014

We recently released our latest report, a typology of public library engagement in America. Using the data behind our previous report on how people value libraries in their communities, this typology divides Americans into nine groups that reflect different patterns of public library engagement along a general spectrum of high, medium, low, and non-engagement.

This approach is a little new for us. Our previous reports have explored topics such as what people do at libraries and library websites or how Americans value individual library services based on traditional factors such as gender, race/ethnicity, age, and household income, but this typology moves beyond basic demographic descriptions. Instead, we used statistical analysis to cluster individuals into groups based on their usage of, views toward, and access to libraries, in order to discover larger insights about how libraries fit into American culture. The following table provides an overview of the typology groups.

Library engagement typology overview

One thread running throughout the report is that people’s library habits do not exist in a vacuum. Americans’ connection—or lack of connection—with public libraries is part of their broader information and social landscape. Those who have extensive economic, social, technological, and cultural resources are also more likely to use and value libraries as part of those networks. Meanwhile, many of those who are less engaged with public libraries tend to have lower levels of technology use, fewer ties to their neighbors, lower feelings of personal efficacy, and less engagement with other cultural activities. These findings echo in several ways:

Life stage and special circumstances are linked to increased library use and higher engagement with information: Deeper connections with public libraries are often associated with key life moments such as having a child, seeking a job, being a student, and going through a situation in which research and data can help inform a decision.

Technology users are generally library users: A common narrative is that Americans are turning away from libraries because of newer technology, but the data shows that most highly-engaged library users are also big technology users. In fact, members of the high engagement groups are more likely to use the internet than lower engagement groups.

Community activities

The most intense library users are also the most likely to be frequent bookstore visitors: “Library Lovers” represent the most highly engaged group in the typology. They are also big readers: Most of them read books daily, and they read an average of 27 books in the past year. And despite their higher levels of library use and the fact that most prefer to borrow books rather than purchasing them, 57% say they visit bookstores regularly (a higher proportion than any other group).

10 facts about Americans and public libraries

January 24, 2014

Technology and the internet are changing Americans’ reading habits and also their relationship with libraries. Half of Americans now own a tablet or e-reader and libraries have responded by expanding their digital offerings.

But what hasn’t changed is Americans’ love for books. American adults still read about as much as ever and overwhelmingly say libraries play an important role in their communities. In advance of the American Library Association’s Midwinter Convention(#alamw14) in Philadelphia, here are some key facts and trends we have chronicled in our research on America’s public libraries.


New reading data from the NEA’s Survey of Public Participation in the Arts

October 02, 2013

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) recently released the findings of its latest Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, conducted in July 2012.

nea[1] copy

As of mid-2012, the survey found that 58% of all American adults ages 18 and older had engaged in “voluntary reading” within the past year. Here’s how that “Voluntary Reading” category breaks down:

Overall, 58% of American adults (or roughly 136 million Americans) did at least one of these types of reading in the previous year. Our own research has found that 75% of Americans ages 16 and older read a book of any kind in 2012, including books read for school or work.

Though the proportion of adults who had read a book of any kind outside of school or work in the past year remained constant between NEA surveys, the share who read a work of literature declined from 50% in 2008 to 47% in 2012.

The report also found an increase in overall book reading among adults ages 65 and older from 55% in 2008 to 61% in 2012. Additionally, adults ages 65-74 “are among those with the highest rates of literary reading,” with 52% consuming some type of literary work in the previous year.

However, as we found in our own late 2012 survey, young adults are also reading at similar rates as most other age groups: 48% of Americans ages 18-24 said they read a literary work (compared with 47% of all adults) and 52% said they read a book of any type (compared with 55% of all adults). Our research has found that when reading for work and school is factored in, 79% of 18-24 year-olds read a book of any kind in the previous year—as had 90% of 16-17 year-olds.

For more information:

Who has home broadband? New data and resources

August 28, 2013

In case you missed it, we just released our latest data on home broadband adoption among American adults:

The report also found that demographic groups with the highest rates of home broadband adoption continue to be college graduates, adults under age 50, and adults living in households earning at least $50,000, as well as whites and adults living in urban or suburban areas. (More data on broadband adoption by different demographic groups is available in the full report.)

The Census Bureau’s July 2011 Current Population Survey found that about 98% of U.S. households live in areas where they have access to broadband Internet connections as of July 2011, although only 69% of households used broadband at home at that time.2 Our previous research has found that many dial-up users cite cost and access as the main reasons they don’t have broadband, though for adults who don’t use the internet at all, a lack of interest is often the main issue.

One in ten adults owns a smartphone but lacks home broadband

In recent years internet-connected mobile devices such as smartphones have exploded in popularity, offering an alternate form of “home” internet access (some 56% of American adults own a smartphone of some kind.)

Though smartphones have often been heralded as a way to “bridge the digital divide,” it’s unclear whether smartphones qualify as “broadband” speed, or whether they offer the same utility to users as a dedicated home internet connection.

However, smartphones do offer a potential source of online access to individuals who might otherwise lack the ability to go online at all from within the home, even if that access is somewhat limited in comparison. And indeed, our report also found that 10% of American adults own a smartphone, but lack a broadband connection at home.

Our data shows that while counting smartphones as a form of high-speed home internet access helps narrow the differences between some demographic groups, it actually widens the gap between others. For instance, the following chart shows that while blacks and Latinos are less likely to have access to home broadband than whites, factoring in their use of smartphones does nearly eliminates that “gap.”3 Yet including smartphones actually exacerbates differences in “broadband” adoption rates when we look at adoption by age group, due to the fact that younger adults are much more likely to own smartphones than older adults.

 Broadband access by race, ethnicity, age group

Rural broadband adoption and access

Our report finds that urban adults and suburban adults continue to be significantly more likely than adults living in rural areas to have home broadband. This gap persists even when smartphone ownership is factored in, as shown in the following chart.

 Broadband access by community type

Though our research focuses on adoption instead of physical access or connection speed, data on these issues and more is available in the report “Broadband Availability in Urban vs. Rural Areas” (pdf) from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).

Government data and resources

The Census Bureau has state-by-state data on home internet, computer, and smartphone use from its July 2011 survey, which is also used by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) in “Exploring the Digital Nation: America’s Emerging Online Experience.” The NTIA report includes data on types of broadband connections, internet and broadband costs, state-level data, and data for smaller demographic groups such as Asian Americans and American Indian and Alaska Natives.

The NTIA’s interactive National Broadband Map also has lots of data on topics such as types of broadband connections, connection speeds, number of broadband providers, or area demographics by state, county, metropolitan area, and more. For more, see

  1. For our broadband definition, we asked people who said they used the internet at home the following question: “At home, do you connect to the Internet through a dial-up telephone line, or do you have some other type of connection, such as a DSL-enabled phone line, a cable TV modem, a wireless connection, or a fiber optic connection such as FIOS?”
  2. "Exploring the Digital Nation: America’s Emerging Online Experience.” National Telecommunications and Information Administration and Economics and Statistics Administration, June 2013. pp 1-2.
  3. The US Census Bureau has found similar trends in its own research. See Thom File, U.S. Census Bureau, “Computer and Internet Use in the United States.” Issued May 2013, based on the July 2011 Current Population Survey. pp 11-13.

Our latest research on teens and technology

August 22, 2013

Want to know how many teens use Tumblr? How many friends the average teen has on Facebook? How all that texting affects their writing skills?Teens and tech

If so, you’re in luck—we’ve published several new reports on teens (ages 12-17) and technology over the past few months, with lots of great findings based on our nationally representative surveys as well as insights from in-person focus groups.

Teens, technology, and privacy

Click here for more teens reports

The effects of technology on education

Click here for more education reports

Related library reports

Click here for more libraries reports

The science of “the smell of books”

June 19, 2013

“Age appears to be best in four things—old wood best to burn, old wine to drink, old friends to trust, and old authors to read.” (Source)

Last year I wrote about the smell of books, and the peculiar attachment that even e-book readers often have to that particular physical property. Today I ran across a post on Smithsonian Magazine’s blog that delves deeper into the science behind print’s smell:

As a book ages, the chemical compounds used—the glue, the paper, the ink–begin to break down. And, as they do, they release volatile compounds—the source of the smell. A common smell of old books, says the International League for Antiquarian Booksellers, is a hint of vanilla: “Lignin, which is present in all wood-based paper, is closely related to vanillin. As it breaks down, the lignin grants old books that faint vanilla scent.”

Whether their digital counterparts “smell like burned fuel” (as author Ray Bradbury put it), the bouquet of old books is certainly hard to replicate; the Smithsonian post quotes a scientist involved in a 2009 study describing the smell of old books as “[a] combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness,” sounding more like something you might find in a wine cellar than a library.

Discarded Books, Recovered Nostalgia
By Kerry Mansfield. From “Discarded Books, Recovered Nostalgia” – New York Times

Update: The New York Times’s Lens blog has a beautiful slideshow of old discarded library books (above):

. . . [W]hile books may not necessarily make for a better reading experience, they are superior as subject matter for a photo project. (I defy you, dear reader, to find a loving portrait of a Nook.)

To wit, witness Kerry Mansfield’s “Expired,” a series whose substance is the physicality of discarded and withdrawn library books. She brings the lens in close, showing worn edges and torn covers and photographing the ephemera of the library experience: the check-out cards and the paper pockets they went into, for example. She includes beloved titles like Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” and Dr. Seuss’s “Hop on Pop,” but also obscure ones like Evelyn Sibley Lampman’s “The Shy Stegosaurus of Cricket Creek.”

In addition to some gorgeous photography, it includes this challenge: “I defy you, dear reader, to find a loving portrait of a Nook.” Dear readers, if you find such portraits, please let us know!

Do you love—or hate—the smell of old print books? If you read e-books, how does the experience of e-reading compare to reading in print? Head on over to our Facebook page and let us know!

One-third of adults (and half of parents) now own a tablet computer

June 11, 2013

We just released a new report yesterday showing that a third (34%) of all American adults ages 18 and older now own a tablet computer. This includes almost half (49%) of adults ages 35-44 and 50% of parents with minor children living at home.

We have received some questions about how parents are using devices such as tablets and smartphones with their children—a fascinating topic, as parents seem to have a complex relationship with technology and its role in parenting. We know, for instance, that even though parents are more likely to read e-books than adults without minor children at home, the vast majority (81%) of parents say that it is important to them that their children are exposed to print books.

A new report (PDF) by researchers at Northwestern University’s Center on Media and Human Development further explores parents’ views of their children’s media use—specifically parents of children from birth to eight years old. (Here’s a Chicago Tribune summary of the report for time-pressed readers.) Some highlights:


In a digital age, parents value printed books for their kids

May 28, 2013

Note: This piece is cross-posted on the Pew Research Center’s new blog, Fact Tank. You can follow Fact Tank on Twitter at @FactTank.

Parents who have minor children at home are a relatively tech-savvy group. They are more likely than other adults to have computers, internet access, smartphones, and tablet computers. (This relatively high tech use may be due to the fact that parents with minor children living at home tend to also be younger than other adults.) They are also more likely than adults without children to read e-books.

09 type of books read

But as parents adopt new reading habits for themselves on electronic devices, the data show that print books remain important when it comes to their children.

12 parents say print books important

More than nine in ten parents of minor children say it is important to them that their children read print books—eighty-one percent say it is “very important,” and an additional 13% say it is “somewhat important.” Very few say having their children read print books is “not too important” (3%) or “not important at all” (3%).

E-reading has been on the rise—some 23% of Americans ages 16 and older read an e-book in 2012, up from 16% the year before. The proportion of American adults who own an e-reading device is increasing as well, with 31% of adults ages 18 and older now owning a tablet and 26% owning an e-reader. And even at the end of 2011, over a third of tablet and e-reader owners who did long-form reading in digital format said they were reading more due to the availability of e-content.

When it comes to sharing books or reading with a child, most Americans adults (not just parents) who have read both print and e-books think that print books are the better option.


So why do parents want their children exposed to print?  We don’t know exactly. But Pew Research gained some insight from a recent in-person focus groups.

Modeling the Reading Habit: Some parents may want their children to have the same pleasant book-reading experience they remember from when they themselves were children. In fact, one parent from the focus group said that reading printed books himself was important because it helped him model reading habits for his children:

“I’m reading like a book [on a tablet] and my children don’t know if I’m reading a book or if I’m playing on Twitter, so I think it’s important to have the book so that they go, ‘Oh Dad’s reading’ . . . not just, ‘Oh he’s updating his Facebook page.’  I think there is like a difference in that.”

Many parents described positive memories of their early reading habits and library use, memories centered around print books. One said that picking up books from the library was a reward for good behavior:

“My parents were real big on [the library]. It was a treat for us, twice a week after church . . . You behave, you [get] to go to the library and get a book, get two books if you’re real good, read them that week and bring them back.”

A Sensory Experience: Some think that children’s books, which often feature large illustrations and may incorporate various tactile elements, aren’t as well suited to e-ink or touchscreens. And given the relative newness of e-reading and uncertainty around the effects of reading on screens, some parents may simply want to temper the exposure their children have to digital materials. “Somehow, I think it’s different,” Alexandra Tyler toldthe New York Times. “When you read a book, a proper kid’s book, it engages all the senses. It’s teaching them to turn the page properly. You get the smell of paper, the touch.”

What do you think? Do you prefer some formats for your own reading, and others for reading with children? Let us know in the comments.


Children, libraries, and reading

May 16, 2013

Family Place program, spring 2013, Half Moon Bay Library, Week 2 - San Mateo County Library
Source: San Mateo County Library (Flickr)

As this week is Children’s Book Week, we took a closer look at our data on children and reading from our recent report on parents, children, libraries, and reading. To begin with, most parents read to their children regularly: About half of all parents with children under 12 at home say they read to their child every day, and another quarter say they do so a few times a week.

We also found that parents with younger children read more often to their children than the parents of older children. Almost six in ten parents whose youngest child is under the age of six say they read to their child every day, compared with about one in three parents whose youngest child is 6 to 11 years old.

Interestingly, parents who have both young children and teenagers in the house are less likely to read to their young children every day than parents who only have children under 12 (29% vs. 60%).

Reading frequency to kids

Another major finding was that parents say libraries are very important resources for developing their children’s reading habits. In our national phone survey, for instance, 94% of parents say that libraries are important for their children, and more than eight in ten (84%) of these parents say a major reason they view the library as important is that it helps to develop a love of reading and books.

27 reasons for importance

We also see this reflected in children’s library use. Among the 70% of parents who say their child visited a public library in the past 12 months, 87% say their child did so in order to borrow books — the most common reason reported by parents. Younger children and older children were equally likely to visit the library for this reason, as shown in the chart below.

38 parents of teenagers

Finally, in the course of gathering material for our report, we asked librarians from around the country open-ended questions about their thoughts on various library services via online questionnaires and in-person and online focus groups. In their responses, many library staff members said they thought services for early childhood literacy, including story times and summer reading programs, were among the most important services their libraries offered:

If you’re trying to raise a reader, you need your library. It’s too expensive and somewhat wasteful to buy the hundreds of books a young reader goes through in those first years of learning to read.”

“[One of public libraries’ strengths is] being a child’s doorway to literacy.”

I think children’s programs will always be the foundation of public libraries. Parents will always want their kids to participate in story time and such and there is no technology that can replace that experience.”

“We are always looking forward, adopting new technologies, identifying trends and planning for anticipated needs—while at the same time, adhering to what has worked well in the past. Storytimes to preschoolers has been an important part of library service to children for over fifty years. It is more important today than ever before to teach parents how to read aloud to their children.”

Do you read to your children? Have your children’s reading habits or library use changed in recent years? Share your thoughts on children, reading, and libraries on our Facebook page.

Slideshow: Tech trends, library stats, and how teens do research

May 15, 2013

Last week, I gave a presentation at the Westchester Library Association’s annual conference that touched on a lot of our recent findings on library use, as well as a broad overview of technology adoption among adults and teens and a quick look at how teens do research in the digital age.  While all of those topics deserve their own blog post, I wanted to put up the slides from the talk and spotlight the reports that cover these topics in more detail.

We also have a few related reports coming up in the next month or so – including one about how teens and young adults use libraries – so stay tuned!

[slideshare id=21105203&doc=wlaslidestopost-130513093413-phpapp02]

Recent reports on teens and young adults:

Read More »

Parents, Children, Libraries, and Reading: Select quotes from parents and library staff

May 01, 2013

In addition to the statistics included in our report, we also asked parents and librarians from around the country about their thoughts on various library services for parents and children. The quotes below are from in-person and online focus groups of library patrons and staff, as well as an online questionnaire of library staff members. More information can be found in the full report.

How parents use libraries

Many of the parents in our in-person focus groups said they were introduced to libraries by their parents or by their schools. In general, they said they had very positive memories of their early library experiences:

“My parents were real big on [the library]. It was a treat for us, twice a week after church . . . You behave, you [get] to go to the library and get a book, get two books if you’re real good, read them that week and bring them back.”

In addition, many parents said they had very positive feelings about their libraries and library staff. However, many often wished that they knew more about what was happening at their library — “there’s so much good stuff going on but no one tells anybody,” one said.

We also asked parents to tell us more about how they use the library with their children. Many described the library as a destination for the whole family, with older children using the library’s resources for schoolwork or to surf the web while younger children attended story times and explored new books:

“A lot of times for school like [my children] need specific articles — like they need more than just one resource for information, so then I’ll take them to the local library . . . if we go, we’re there for hours.  So, I just take my work from the office with me and then they do their research there. . . .  If they have questions and if I can’t answer them, I ask somebody that works [at the library].”

Early childhood literacy and programs for children

In online questionnaires, many library staff members considered early childhood literacy programs and story times among their most important services:

“I feel that with the early literacy elements and story times and crafts, we are building a foundation for our young children to become lifelong learners. Story time not only provides a educational component, it also provides socialization for the children and the parents, building a close knit community.”

“If you’re trying to raise a reader, you need your library,” one librarian wrote. “It’s too expensive and somewhat wasteful to buy the hundreds of books a young reader goes through in those first years of learning to read.”

Others singled out the unique place libraries can have in children’s lives as a place for children to discover and pursue their own interests. One library staff member wrote that a major strength of public libraries is “serving children in that they are really the only public place in any community where a child’s wants and desires are treated as respectfully as an adults.”

Many library staff members wrote they wanted to help patrons learn to successfully navigate all types of media — and continue to do so as patrons age:

“I believe libraries should take a more active role in teaching patrons — both children and adults — how to interact with digital materials, whether that is computers, digitized materials, e-books, automatic book checkouts, or other devices. … Libraries should step up to the plate and assume responsibility for the digital education of the community.”

Coordinating with schools

Many librarian respondents emphasized the importance of working with area schools. Many respondents said that area schools had little (or no) library support, leaving students to rely on local libraries:

“Our local school does not have a librarian, so we feel even more responsible to the students and their parents when it comes to literacy and academic support.”

And many library staff members said they were also seeking to complement schools’ efforts in bringing newer technologies into the classroom, including tablet computers:

“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.”

Libraries as community centers

One subject that came up several times in the focus group discussions was how the parents valued the role of their local public library in the larger community. One parent who has a 3-year-old son said:

“To me, a library . . . is a necessity. They have lots of things to offer. It’s kind of like home room for your community. If you want to find something out then you just ask. And they have a lot of things that they offer that they don’t advertise.”

Other parents said they appreciated their relationships with library staff, who were able to recommend specific library books, services, and other resources the patrons would not have known about otherwise. One mother said it was helpful when library staff could point out resources she might be interested in, because many times she wouldn’t think to ask about them in the first place:

“If I want to know something, I’d know to ask [the library staff] questions, but I’m not going to always know what questions to ask because I’m not going to always know what information I can ask about. . . . [An activity] might not necessarily be posted, and if it’s not posted, how would you know to [ask]?”

Many parents said they use the library as a general destination for their family, and appreciated comfortable spaces where they and their children could read and work:

I actually enjoy being able to go and sit down at a big table with my children and just do homework, lay all the books out. You know what I mean? Interact with them and be able to – instead of being all closed in in the house or whatever. It’s kind of like your mind flows more when you’re at the library.”

When asked about public library’s strengths, one library staff member wrote:

 “Libraries — especially public libraries — should be the great connector. Connecting people with information and the resources they need to make informed decisions about their lives. Connecting people with the resources they need for entertainment. Connecting children to books and the love of reading. Connecting people to their roots and their past.”

On responding to community needs

Many library staff members wrote about how libraries could respond to the broader needs of parents and children in the community:

“Many parents who are new to the community, or even to the [country], use the library as a gateway to learning about the area. They see us as an institution that has all the answers not just about books and movies, but about schools, daycare, local parks, other groups that cater to families, etc.”

“We’re definitely an important social place for many groups — children after school, the elderly and retired, job seekers, parents with children. I don’t think we can be just an online presence. Our physical space means a lot to people in our town.”

“I think it is important for libraries to respond to their community needs. Not every library needs to be ran the same way or offer the same services. It is also important for libraries to offer services and programs that match the demographics of their communities. Freeing up space for children doesn’t make sense when the majority of your users are 45+.”


Read more in the full report:

Updates to our research timeline

April 11, 2013

Curious about what libraries research we’ve done—and what’s up next?

You’re in luck: We’ve updated our research timeline with links to all our libraries-related reports so far, and well as a more detailed description of our upcoming releases. (Our next report, which studies parents and children at libraries, will be out in early May.)

Click here to see the updated timeline, or check out the full list of all our libraries reports and other publications.

You can also sign up for our email alerts in order to be notified of future reports.

“Libraries of the future”

April 04, 2013

Libraries of the Future  - Infographic made this neat infographic based on Kristen Purcell’s keynote address for the 2012 State University of New York Librarians Association Annual Conference last June. In case you want to dig into the data behind the slides, here are some (updated) links to the types of data found in the presentation and infographic:


 Internet and technology use

“What should I read next?”

March 18, 2013

It’s a question that librarians, booksellers, and others have heard often, perhaps even more so at a time when the output and availability of the written word has never been higher. And it’s a question that new book-recommendation sites such as Bookish and BookScout are trying to answer, joining a plethora of communities and services already trying to navigate the tricky task of helping you decide which book to pick up next.

The problem of wading through so many options is not confined to books, of course; Netflix famously challenged developers to improve its movie recommendation engine, Amazon suggests products based on previous purchases, and Pandora builds personalized “radio” stations with tracks it hopes you’ll love.

But when it comes to books, at least, the majority of Americans turn to their friends and family to decide what they’ll read next. According to last year’s e-borrowing report, the majority (64%) of Americans ages 16 and older said they get book recommendations from family members, friends, or co-workers. Another 28% get them from online bookstores or other websites, 23% hear about books from bookstore staff, and 19% get recommendations from librarians or library websites.

Of course, the various ways people find and share books are often quite complex, involving several or all of those sources. “If I hit on a genre I like,” one reader told us in an online questionnaire, “I’ll go to, look up a book I’ve read and enjoyed, and then look to see what other books Amazon thinks is like the book I just looked up. I also use social networking book sites, like Goodreads, to get ideas. I also use recommendations from Facebook friends as a place to start.”

Another aspect of the process that many people mentioned in focus groups and our online panels is the serendipity of the found book. Many people love to browse at bookstores, and ogling other people’s bookshelves is a time-honored pastime among bibliophiles. And when we asked people what they do at libraries, one of the top activities for all patrons was simply browsing the stacks — as popular an activity as borrowing print books.

Browsing gets a little trickier in the digital sphere, however, with the rise of e-reading — 23% of Americans ages 16 and older read an e-book in the past year — and its issues are compounded for e-book borrowers. In our earlier report on e-books at libraries, many e-book borrowers lamented that their only browsing option was to scroll through page after page of titles, with few useful ways to sort through the catalog.

Instead, several of the patrons in our panel said they had developed a workaround using commercial interfaces, which often include reviews, recommendations, and other ways of discovering new titles: “I will sometimes go to Amazon to find titles I might like, then search them in OverDrive, since Amazon’s interface is so much more reader friendly (tells you what else you might like, etc.),” one wrote. But over and over again, people told us that they wished they had more help finding the gems hidden in their libraries’ online catalogs.

A natural solution might be to simply ask a librarian. After all, readers’ advisory is not exactly a new service for public libraries; as one librarian in a focus groups said, suggesting books for patrons to read has always been part of “the job of the librarian. [Patrons] came up to the desk and said, ‘I like to read Tom Clancy. What am I going to read now?’”

But the crux of the e-book quandary is that the search takes place in the patron’s home, far away from the reference desk. Instead, many people (including both e-book and print borrowers) told us that they would like their library account to offer personalized recommendations based on their previous borrowing history. When asked, 64% of Americans say they would be interested in personalized online accounts that provide customized recommendations for books and services based on their past library activity, similar to the recommendations offered by commercial sites like Amazon.

Librarians did point out, though, that this option presents many potential problems, including some very basic privacy issues. One wrote:

“Customized recommendations also mean retaining records of what patrons have checked out in the past, which we do not currently do because of privacy issues. We are heading towards a system where patrons can ‘opt in’ to have their borrowing record available, but the default will still be to not retain.”

Some libraries that have integrated book recommendations into their system deal with the privacy issues by requiring patrons to explicitly opt in to the service, as noted above. Others avoid the issue altogether by posting general lists of recommended books, or directing patrons to third-party services such as Novelist or Goodreads.

Ultimately, many librarians argued that the best solution might be somewhere in the middle. “We have an online Reader’s Advisory form,” one wrote, “but I usually end up chatting with the person after we give them the list we develop and get a much better sense of what they want. Digital services should be in addition to, not in the place of, face to face services.”

How do you find books to read? Head on over to our Facebook page and let us know!

Should libraries shush?

February 06, 2013

Last week, Salon published a piece by Laura Miller entitled “Bring back shushing librarians,” focusing on some of the findings from our recent report on library services. “[T]here’s a lot to be said for that shushing,” Miller writes, adding, “I’ve long believed that one of the most precious resources libraries offer their patrons is simple quiet.”

The piece has sparked a bit of a debate on a couple blogs and in social media about what people want from libraries. So should libraries shush, or not?

One of the interesting findings that surfaced throughout our research, whether in our nationally representative phone survey, in-person focus groups, and our online panel of librarians, was that Americans want many things from their libraries. About three-quarters said that they want quiet study spaces available, but a similar number said they want programs and classes for children and teens, for instance — a decidedly un-quiet service!

If there’s one thing our research shows, it’s that there’s no one thing people want their libraries to be. They want their libraries to be lots of things, a place where they can study and meet with friends and attend meetings — and more. (And different patrons want different things — and patrons in different communities have different needs, as well.) But we do see some common themes, one of which is that quiet spaces are still an important part of what people expect from their libraries.


And it’s not just patrons. One librarian in our online panel, echoing many others, described quiet study spaces as “essential.” Another highlighted the multiple roles libraries play as spaces in the community: “a place to go where it is reasonably quiet, comfortable — to focus, read, study,” and also as “a place to gather for study groups, group learning and leisure experiences, [and] library-sponsored community events.”

Perhaps this is why, in a separate question, Americans identified having separate spaces for different services as one of the top things libraries should do — only coordination with local schools and free literacy programs ranked higher. A majority (61%) of Americans say that libraries should “definitely” have completely separate locations or spaces for different services, such as children’s services, computer labs, reading spaces, and meeting rooms, and another 27% say libraries should “maybe” do this.


The value of having separate spaces for different activities (especially for noise reduction) was mentioned very often in our focus groups, both by patrons and library staff members.

In our report, we quoted librarians in our online panel who described the effect that separating traditionally quiet activities from typically louder ones has had. “When possible I think that it works well to keep the computer, group meeting, and children’s area noise away from the quieter reading areas,” one wrote. Another said that moving the area for teens away from general adult areas “has made a world of difference.” In this case, quiet was not the only result: “The teens behavior has gotten so much better we no longer need a security guard at the library.”

Many libraries already offer separate spaces for different services. The librarians in our online panel who said they were unlikely to offer this generally cited issues of space or funding; one pointed out that “in small libraries, often operated by a single staff member, separate spaces cannot be for reasons of security or even customer service.”

In a post responding to the Salon piece, the Teen Librarian Toolbox blog offered a few thoughts about some of the issues libraries face when trying to keep the noise levels down:

“Some libraries are better designed to meet the changing landscape of libraries today.  They have smaller, independent study rooms.  Their children and teen areas are a more reasonable distance from areas designated as quiet study areas.  But older buildings don’t always retrofit well to the changing needs of our library populations.  Perhaps nowhere do we see this more clearly than in teen services; how many of us have had to try and find a sensible place to put a new teen area in library that didn’t previously recognize the need for teen services?  You have to consider things like noise levels, line of sight, location in reference to both the children and adult collections, funding we don’t have and more.”

Finally, another interesting aspect to this discussion is that while the members of our in-person patron focus groups also said that they valued quiet spaces at the library, they didn’t necessarily want the general atmosphere in the rest of the library to be too quiet. When asked to imagine their “dream” library, participants in our focus groups consistently described having a comfortable place where they could not only focus and get work done, but also feel like a part of their community; where “even if you’re by yourself, you don’t feel like you’re by yourself,” as one participant put it. Many described a sort of “coffeeshop” ambience or “living room atmosphere,” a “safe and affordable hangout location” where they could mingle with other people if they wanted to, but can do their own thing if not.

The New York Times recently hosted a “Room for Debate” discussion about the present and future of libraries. I was struck by something that Matthew Battles, the author of “Library: An Unquiet History,” wrote in his response:

“In their long history, libraries have been models for the world and models of the world; they’ve offered stimulation and contemplation, opportunities for togetherness as well as a kind of civic solitude. They’ve acted as gathering points for lively minds and as sites of seclusion and solace. For making knowledge and sharing change, we still need such places—and some of those, surely, we will continue to call ‘the library.’”


What do you think? Should libraries be quiet or bustling — or both? Head on over to our Facebook page and let us know!

Innovative library services “in the wild”

January 29, 2013

Our new report takes a close look not only at how Americans are using public libraries, but also what sort of services and programming they think libraries should offer — and what they say they would use in the future.

For this last point, we asked about a range of potential offerings, including online “ask a librarian”-type research service, mobile library apps, library kiosks in the community, and pre-loaded e-readers available for checkout. A breakdown of these ideas’ overall popularity is included below; more information is included in the report, and tables with demographic breakdowns for each item can be found in the appendix.


But we also wanted to include illustrations of some of these more innovative services, to see what they look like on the ground. To that end, we’ve collected examples of many of the types of services mentioned in the report, as well as some “fun and funky” services that we’ve seen pop up at libraries across the county.

We’ll keep updating the list with new examples as we hear about them. Does your library have a neat service we should know about? Send us an email and let us know! And many thanks to everyone who has sent in examples so far.

Examples of services discussed in the report

Technology “Petting Zoo”

The Kent Free Library in Ohio “has hosted ‘Technology Petting Zoos’ to give patrons and community members a chance to have hands-on interaction with a variety of tablets and e-readers. In the library’s meeting room, 12 different devices are available to try out with a librarian on hand to explain their features and detail the differences between various devices.”

Digital Media Lab

The Skokie Public Library in Illinois “offers a digital media lab, a space with content creation tools that allow patrons to create and share video, music, photography, and design projects. Customers have access to computers with editing software, cameras, camcorders, microphones, and musical keyboards. Additionally, the Skokie media lab has a green screen wall for video projects.”

Read More »

Other library links and news around the web

January 25, 2013

While we hope you’ve had a chance to read our new report on library services that just came out this week, there are some other great links out there that you should be sure to check out.

OverDrive statistics

OverDrive released some of its major usage and collection statistics for the past year. In 2012:

Public library use in 2010

IMLS published the results of its 2010 Public Library Survey. Among the findings:

Read more in the press release and full report.

Other links

Scholastic released its Kids & Family Reading Report, based on a national survey of children ages 6–17 and their parents.

And while it’s not from this week, the findings of Libraries Connect Communities: Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study, 2011-2012 from the American Library Association and the Information Policy & Access Center at the University of Maryland offer some great context around our report’s findings:

Internet access at libraries

December 28, 2012

In a survey this fall, the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project asked whether people had accessed the internet at a library in the previous 12 months. Some 26% of those ages 16 and older said they had.

Our question was designed to include people who used the wired computers at the library and people who had used the library WiFi connection, too.

There were some notable demographic differences in the answers to this question. African-Americans and Latinos were more likely than whites to access the internet at their local library, as were parents of minor children, those under age 50, and those with some college experience. Some of these findings have been covered in a New York Times debate that began on December 27, 2012.

How important is free computer and internet access at libraries?

We did not ask a question about whether library internet users depend on that connection as their primary internet connection. But we asked respondents to this survey how important they think it is to have free access to computers and the internet at the library in their community.

Some 77% of all those ages 16 and older said it was very important for libraries to offer free access to computers and the internet to the community and another 18% said it was somewhat important. Just 2% said it was not too important and another 2% said it was not important at all.

Again, there were some noteworthy demographic differences in the answers: African-Americans and Latinos were more likely than whites to feel free access was very important. Women and those with some college experience were also especially likely to feel this way.

Another good resource on the matter of computer and internet access at libraries is the Opportunity for All report from researchers at the University of Washington. [Disclosure: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was an underwriter of that research as well as ours.]

About the survey

The findings reported here come from a survey of 2,252 Americans ages 16 and old on cell phones and landline phones between October 15-November 10, 2012. The surveys were administered in English and Spanish. The margin of error is +/- 2.3 percentage points.

The smell of books

September 28, 2012

What’s in a smell? A book in any format may read the same, but it seems there’s something about the smell of print that e-books just can’t capture—for now.

Earlier this summer, New York Times tech blogger Nick Bilton wrote about wandering into a West Village bookstore on a visit to New York:

“I immediately felt a sense of nostalgia that I haven’t felt in a long time. The scent of physical books—the paper, the ink, the glue—can conjure up memories of a summer day spent reading on a beach, a fall afternoon in a coffee shop, or an overstuffed chair by a fireplace as rain patters on a windowsill.”

But amidst this nostalgic reverie, he considers the advantages of e-books: their search functionality, ease of transport, the ability to share favorite passages with friends. He leaves the bookstore without buying anything.

Yet for some, the added conveniences of electronic books can never make up for the loss of the physical experience of reading a print book. The author Ray Bradbury famously was never a fan of e-books:

“Those aren’t books. . . .  A computer does not smell. There are two perfumes to a book. If a book is new, it smells great. If a book is old, it smells even better. It smells like ancient Egypt. A book has got to smell.”

According to Bradbury, e-books themselves “smell like burned fuel.”

Though none were as caustic as Bradbury, one of the things that struck me in the responses of our online panel was the ambivalence of these avid readers (and e-book borrowers) toward the rise of e-books. Many echoed the same thought: “Nothing can replace the feel and smell of a physical book.”

As another panelist explained:

“I thoroughly enjoy reading from my Kindle. I am honestly surprised because I am an absolute bibliophile. I love the touch, the smell, everything about a paper book. I would find it shameful if paper books were not longer published or made available. For me, my e-reader will NEVER take the place of a paper book, but it does have its own niche.”

However, some patrons noted the downside of the “used book smell.” One wrote:

“I’ve always been a book lover, but not having to deal with dirty, smelly, broken books is really nice. Instead of borrowing [print] books from the library, I’ll buy the e-book if the library’s e-book isn’t available.”

Another said that she doesn’t even borrow print books from the library because she is allergic to perfume, “and the physical books are usually smelly. E-books, on the other hand, have no odor.”

In fact, one patron felt that having fewer books at the library made the library more conducive to reading:

“I like that the libraries are not as cluttered with old smelly books now that the computers and e-book formats are around. It makes the libraries feel less like old bookstores and more like a living room waiting for readers to sit down and read.”

Finally, the results of our national survey indicate that while the lack of a “good book smell” is not a deal-breaker for most readers, it’s certainly not irrelevant.

When we asked readers what they like most about reading books, they gave a variety of responses. Many mentioned the joys of learning, entertainment, or relaxation, but a few (2%) said the physical properties of books—their feel and smell—was their favorite part of reading. And among Americans who don’t currently own an e-reader (like a Kindle or Nook), about 16% said the main reason is that they just prefer print books in general.

Though e-book readers clearly prefer e-books to print in many situations, they may not need to sacrifice all the tactile pleasure of the printed page. In fact, nostalgic e-book readers can now recapture that new- or old-book scent with perfumes such as In The Library and Paper Passion (shown at top). And for the budget reader, Smell of Books™ claims to offer an “aerosol e-book enhancer,” available in scents ranging from its “New Book Smell” and “Classic Musty Smell” (shown below) to “Crunchy Bacon Scent.” Note—Unlike the perfumes mentioned above, this product appears to be tongue-in-cheek.

I’ll close with the words of an online panelist who described her own internal compromise between the pleasures of print and the ease of e-books. “The joy of smelling turning pages can’t be matched by an e-book, but the joy of the story from an e-book can turn someone into a physical book reader,” she said. “And the more we read the better we all are.”

Notes from ALA 2012

July 09, 2012

The Rise of E-Reading

In case you missed it: Our director, Lee Rainie, shared findings from our new report on e-book lending at libraries at the 2012 ALA Annual Conference on Sunday, June 24. He also discussed general reading trends, the rise of e-books, and library patrons’ experiences with e-book borrowing. His slides are available below.

[slideshare id=13444911&doc=theriseofe-reading-120625081058-phpapp01]

(Want to read more? Most of the data in his talk came from our new report, “Libraries, patrons, and e-books,” as well as our previous e-books report, “The rise of e-reading.”)

Lee will also be discussing this material at the ALA Virtual Conference on July 18 starting at 11:45 a.m., EDT.

Digital Differences

I also had a great time discussing our research at a session of the ALA’s Spectrum Leadership Institute on Monday, June 25. We talked about trends in technology access and use among various demographic groups, as well as what these changes might mean for libraries.

[slideshare id=13445883&doc=digitaldifferences-120625093656-phpapp02]

As I mentioned during my talk, senior research specialist Aaron Smith just wrote a new report on “cell mostly” internet users—the 17% of cell phone owners who do most of their online browsing on their phone, rather than a computer or other device. It not only updates our 2011 data, but explores the data in greater detail. As always, it’s available in full online and as a PDF.

At my session, there were a number of great questions about our research methodology, especially why we do not report findings related to Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders. Our surveys cover people in all groups, but there are some pretty technical reasons why we do not cite statistics on relatively small demographic groups. A post on the main Pew Internet website explains some of the reasons.

Be sure to check back later for more blog posts exploring different aspects of our latest report, coming soon!

Libraries, patrons, and e-books: A guide to our new report

July 06, 2012

As you may know, we recently published a big report about e-book lending at libraries. The main headline from the report is that 12% of e-book readers ages 16 and older have borrowed an e-book from the library in the past year. However, another striking finding is that a majority of Americans (including a majority of library card holders) do not know if their library offers e-books for check-out—though the ALA reports that about three-quarters of libraries offer e-book lending.

We’ll have some posts exploring different aspects of the report in the coming weeks, but you can also read the entire report online (or download the PDF, if you prefer). And if you want to jump to a specific section, here’s a brief outline of the findings:



Part 1: An introduction to the issues surrounding libraries and e-books – A brief background section on the current issues faced by libraries and publishers, as well as other players like e-book distributor OverDrive and online retailer Amazon.

Part 2: Where people discover and get their books – This part takes another look at how people find out about books and where they go to find them, including a special analysis of how library card holders’ patterns differ from other Americans.

Part 3: Library users – This part examines the demographics and reading habits of library card holders, as well as how different groups see the role of the local library in their lives.

Part 4: How people used the library in the past year – How different groups used the library in the past year for a variety of purposes, including research, book-borrowing, and accessing periodicals like newspapers and magazines.

Part 5: Libraries in transition – This qualitative section includes quotes from librarians and patrons about changes in library holdings and patrons’ book-borrowing habits, and the evolving roles of librarians. We also asked librarians about how their libraries introduced e-book lending, including their experiences with training staff and patrons.

Part 6: A closer look at e-book borrowing – Using both quantitative data and quotes from our online respondents, this section explores the e-book borrowing process and common issues that patrons and librarians encounter, as well as how the process could be improved in the future.

Part 7: Non-e-book borrowers – This section examines why people don’t borrow e-books from libraries (and finds that a majority of Americans do not know if their libraries even offer e-books). It also shows which groups of non-borrowers would be interested in library resources such as pre-loaded e-readers or classes on how to use e-readers and check out e-books.

Part 8: Final thoughts – Our final section takes a step back to look at larger trends in library services and patrons’ reading habits, and what patrons and librarians expect from the “library of the future.”


E-books aren’t just for e-readers: A deep dive into the data

April 20, 2012

One of my favorite findings in our recent e-reading report was the breakdown of how people read their e-books. While there is a (very understandable) tendency to associate e-books with dedicated e-reading devices, we found that among people who read e-books, just as many read their e-books on a desktop or laptop computer as on an e-book reader like a Kindle or Nook—and more people read e-books on their cell phones than on tablet computers.

Read More »

Do you borrow e-books from your local public library?

April 16, 2012

As you know, we are in the midst of a multi-year study of the changing role of public libraries in the digital age. For our next report, we’re supplementing our usual nationally representative phone surveys with non-scientific, non-representative online surveys. These surveys help us draw out deeper, richer stories about the experiences of library users that can be used to illuminate the findings of our nationally representative surveys. If you check out or download e-books from your local public library, please take the survey below and tell us about your experiences!

The survey will be confidential and we will not share your identity, although your answers may be quoted anonymously in the report. The survey should take about 15 minutes.

[Update: This survey is now closed.]

And thanks!


P.S. Not an e-book borrower? We will also be doing broader surveys of public library patrons in general, as well as people (including non-library-users) who own e-readers or tablet computers. If you would like to be notified of any of our future questionnaires, please sign up here.

Print books vs. e-books: Which is better for what

April 13, 2012

Our recent e-reading report has received a lot of attention over the past week, and one section in particular that seemed to spark conversation was our “print vs. e-books” showdown:

We asked people who read both print books and e-books in the past year which format they thought was better for a variety of situations. We found that people prefer e-books when they need a book quickly, when they want a wide selection, or when they want to read “on-the-go” while commuting or traveling. Print, meanwhile, is the preferred format for “social reading,” such as sharing books with others or reading with a child.

And when it comes to the time-honored tradition of reading in bed? The verdict was split: 45% say e-books are best here, while 43% prefer print.

Here are more links to interesting discussions we’ve noticed around the web:

What do you think? If you’re a “dual-format reader,” when does print win out over e-books (and vice versa?) How have e-books changed your reading habits—if at all? Hop over to our Facebook page and let us know!

A sneak peek at our research timeline

April 09, 2012

As you may know, Pew Internet received a $1.4 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to study the role of libraries in users’ lives and in their communities. So far, we’ve released reports chronicling the adoption of e-readers and tablet computers and the rise of e-reading — but we’re just getting started.

Over the course of the next two years, we’ll come out with a series of reports examining technology adoption and use in libraries, patrons’ expectations, the “library of the future,” and how libraries fit into people’s lives in all sorts of ways.

Our next report, for instance, is a look at the state of e-book borrowing in American libraries, and what sort of experiences people have when they want to check out digital content. This report will combine the quantitative results for our December 2011 nationally representative phone survey with longer responses and stories from a series of online surveys of both librarians and e-book borrowers.

How you can participate

While our phone surveys are random to ensure statistical accuracy, we are actively looking for e-book borrowers to volunteer to take our online surveys. So if you ever check out or download e-books from a public library — or if you’re a librarian at a library that has e-books available for check-out — please sign up.

Not an e-book borrower? We’d still love to hear from you. Some of our future online surveys will cover a lot of ground, so take a look to see which groups apply to you. Once you sign up (and click on the confirmation link that we send you), you’ll be notified whenever relevant online surveys are in the field.

Learn more

If you would like to learn more about where this research series is headed, an abbreviated version of our research plans is available below. A full version is also available in our “About” section here.

Read More »

Let us be your megaphone

April 02, 2012

Chances are, if you’re reading this post, you’re someone who loves storytelling as much as we do. And while we at Pew Internet primarily tell stories through data, we also rely heavily on qualitative research to help us better understand the larger trends we observe in our research. Sometimes a single comment to an open-ended question can generate a critically important insight or lead us to ask new questions that simply wouldn’t have occurred to us otherwise.

To that end, in addition to our nationally representative phone surveys, we will also be conducting a series of online surveys and interviews to learn more about library patrons’ and e-book users’ experiences navigating the changing role of technology in their lives. Over the next year, we will be sending out surveys to four groups:

If you fall into any of these groups and you are interested in being a part of our research, you can learn more here. As always, we’re extremely grateful for everyone who shares their time and experiences with us. Thank you. Without you, our work would not be possible!

Libraries get a room of their own

March 30, 2012

You may notice that this website looks and feels a bit different from the home site of As part of our multi-year study of the changing role of public libraries in the digital age, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we felt it was important to give this work its own “room,” so to speak. You will still be able to find all of these reports and presentations at our home site, but you’ll also have as a one-stop shop for everything that Pew Internet does that relates to libraries.

Beyond our new Gates Foundation-supported initiative, you’ll see that this site also features an archive of relevant library-focused material that Pew Internet has produced in the past. Did you happen to miss Lee Rainie’s keynote address at the Internet Librarian conference last year? Well, we’ve got it here.

We’re also very interested to hear your feedback about the new site: What do you think works well? Where can we improve? What else could we add to this site to make it an even better resource for you?

Drop us an email and let us know what you think:

NextLibraries: What do Americans want from their libraries?

March 28, 2012

Laurie Putnam at Next Libraries has a great post up discussing the plans of our new research initiative to study libraries in the digital age:

The grant will allow researchers to concentrate on libraries in a way they never have before. “It’s enormously exciting to be doing something very focused on libraries and librarians because they are primary stakeholders of our work,” says Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet Project. “I know from all the conversations I’ve had with librarians how interested they are to find out where they stand in the world, what services people expect of them, and where they might fit into the world of ebooks.”

The post also includes an overview of our research schedule and ways to participate in upcoming research. Check it out!

New Report: Tablet and e-book reader ownership nearly double over the holiday gift-giving period

January 23, 2012

Our latest report finds that the share of adults in the United States who own tablet computers nearly doubled from 10% to 19% between mid-December and early January. The same surge in growth also applied to e-book readers, which also jumped from 10% to 19% over the same time period. As a result, the number of Americans owning at least one of these digital reading devices jumped from 18% in December to 29% in January.

These findings are especially striking because they come after a period from mid-2011 into the autumn in which there was not much change in the ownership of tablets and e-book readers. However, as the holiday gift-giving season approached, the marketplace for both devices dramatically shifted. In the tablet world, Amazon’s Kindle Fire and Barnes and Noble’s Nook Tablet were introduced at considerably cheaper prices than other tablets. In the e-book reader world, some versions of the Kindle and Nook and other readers fell well below $100.

Read the full report at