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Breaking news: the Internet is useful, people still use libraries

[update: in a comment, cj, below, provides a link to the original survey instrument which also provides answers to some of my questions.]

Pew just issued a report, Information Searches That Solve Problems,” that even on its debut over a holiday weekend has already been quoted left and right as proof that the Internet is a popular information source, Gen Y uses libraries, and people want printed government documents.

I’m still trying to sort out what the report really means, and that’s hard to do in part because some of the language in the report feels very fuzzy, if not at times a wee bit misleading. Yes, yes, go Illini, but I do have to ask if the UIUC GSLIS partnership with Pew on this grant isn’t a bit like Big Pharma underwriting studies of restless leg syndrome, which until we had a drug to cure it was merely ants in one’s pants.

I’ll bet the people responding to the gov-docs question (whatever it was) had no idea that gun was loaded. “A plurality of respondents said they prefer access to government documents on the internet, but significant numbers said they still would prefer to get printed government publications by mail or from government offices and libraries.” That’s a conclusion that can be twisted in many ways and might be deployed by the old-school gov-docs-library crowd to justify maintaining the vast tombs of print publications moldering in depository libraries at the expense of ensuring prompt access to online government information, in or out of libraries, when for all I know the balloons over the respondents’ heads were, “Yes, I do sometimes prefer a paper W-4.”

This also feels contradictory to the finding that “The vast majority of Americans want and expect information about government programs to be available on the internet.” (Note how a “plurality” in the press release jumped to “a vast majority” in the actual report — if in fact we are talking about the same question.)

Again, I get the feeling we’re supposed to do a happy-dance about Gen Y using libraries, but the data right there in the blurb for the report could also be phrased as “libraries are least preferred methods for getting information”:

  • 58% of those who had recently experienced one of those problems said they used the internet (at home, work, a public library or some other place) to get help.
  • 53% said they turned to professionals such as doctors, lawyers or financial experts.
  • 45% said they sought out friends and family members for advice and help.
  • 36% said they consulted newspapers and magazines.
  • 34% said they directly contacted a government office or agency.
  • 16% said they consulted television and radio.
  • 13% said they went to the public library.

In other words, the radio was a more popular resource than libraries for “getting information.” Not that I don’t enjoy sitting around waiting for NPR to answer my questions, but these findings seem to be more congruent with OCLC’s findings that libraries are the least-likely methods for information-seeking, which would suggest that in the perception of most users, libraries are about books, not information — though less so for Gen Y.

Then in the report we read:

65% of adults who went to a library for problem-solving help said that access to
computers, particularly the internet, was key reason they go to the library for help.
And 62% of adults who went to the library for help actually used the computers at
the library.
• 58% of those with problems said they used library reference books.
• 42% of those with problems said they perused library newspapers and magazines.

So computers in libraries are important — a good finding — and nearly everyone who went to the library to use a computer did in fact use a computer. It’s interesting and I think useful to know that when people do go to the library they use a variety of sources.

I am curious to know what “reference books” and “library newspapers and magazines” were most valuable (Consumer Reports is one good bet). All in all, remember we’re talking about the 13 percent who use libraries, not the 87 percent who do not, and I would bet that the users’ mental models of “reference books” was far different than that intended by the question.

I have some concerns about the verbs used with respect to libraries. Why and how did these users “use” libraries? Did users visit libraries? Call them? (I’m willing to bet that “virtual reference” in any of its manifestations — chat or email — had an undetectable viral load.)

I like that we know that “The problem that was most likely to be cited by those who went to libraries related to education – either making a decision about a school, getting more training, or finding financial resources. That reason was cited by 20% of the adults who went to libraries for help.” I wonder if this is due to the impact of public libraries — or have academic libraries (both two and four year) played a role in pushing the needle on public perceptions about library services?

I don’t know what to make of the statement, “Asked whether they would go to a library in the future to help them solve problems, 40% of Gen Y said it was likely they would go, compared with 20% of those over age 30.” Again, why is it that 60 percent of the library users wouldn’t use a library in the future — and what about that 80 percent rate for those over 30?

Despite these grumbles and a raised eyebrow or two, as always I admire the work of the Pew folks, and I agree with something not emphasized in the report: a lot of people don’t use the Web so much and don’t use libraries at all. That doesn’t make the Web or libraries less important, and in fact it raises the question of the perceptions and experiences of the 87 percent not turning to libraries — or the 60 to 80 percent who having used libraries once for their information needs do not plan to use them again.

We will never turn our country into a nation of library users; that has never been true. But is it reasonable — or perhaps even important — to try to reach higher than where we are?

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