The latest study from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, “Online Activities and Pursuits:  Information Searches That Solve Problems”, revealed some surprising findings that challenge traditional beliefs about who uses libraries; the report also seems to allay fears that libraries may be losing their relevance in the digital age.   The report highlights these key findings: 

  • Libraries drew visits by more than half of Americans (53%) in the past year for all kinds of purposes, not just the problems mentioned in the survey.
  • Young adults in the tech-loving Generation Y (age 18-30)  led the pack. Compared to their elders, Gen Y members were the most likely to use libraries for problem-solving information and in general patronage for any purpose.
  • Young adults are the ones who are the most likely to say they will use libraries in the future when they encounter problems: 40% of Gen Y said they would do that, compared with 20% of those above age 30 who say they would go to a library.

“These findings turn our thinking about libraries upside down. Librarians have been asked whether the Internet makes libraries less relevant. It has not. Internet use seems to create an information hunger and it is information-savvy young people who are the most likely to visit libraries,” noted Leigh Estabrook, Dean and Professor Emerita at the University of Illinois, co-author of a report on the results.  She added that Internet users with broadband were much more likely to patronize libraries than those without broadband access to the Internet (61% vs. 28%).

The survey did seem to indicate the problem of the digital divide and traditional issues of equity of literacy (as demonstrated in Deborah’s Brandt’s ground-breaking researching in Literacy in American Lives).  The report summary states:

A major focus of this survey was on those with no access to the Internet (23% of the population) and those with only dial-up access (13% of the population). This “low-access” population is poorer, older, and less well-educated than the cohort with broadband access at home or at work. They are less likely to visit government offices or libraries under any circumstances. And they are more likely to rely on television and radio for help than are high-access users.  

What do you think are the implications of this study for us as media specialists and educators?  How can librarians (school and public) better reach those who are not using the library for information?  How can we bridge the gaps highlighted in this report?