Pew Library Survey: Takeaway Points

Anna Christiansen
Associate Marketing Writer

The results of this year’s Pew Survey are in! It’s great to see that “76% of adults say libraries serve the learning and educational needs of their communities [well].”

And what’s more, a large majority of adult library users—98%—strongly identify with the term “lifelong learner.” Libraries everywhere should be proud. These numbers show that libraries are indeed accomplishing their missions, much to the satisfaction and betterment of their communities. While we’re thrilled to see that Americans value libraries and are engaging in continued learning, there are statistics in the Pew survey that indicate opportunities for our libraries to grow and improve.

In addition to user satisfaction and learning, the Pew survey offered perspectives into public awareness of the library offerings, including job-related resources, GED classes, and skill mastery programs. Public awareness was compared against a report by the Information Policy Access Center (IPAC) at the University of Maryland, which offers insight into public library offerings nationwide. The Pew survey shows that there is a disconnect between library services and patron awareness. Americans are not well-informed about the newer, more extensive library offerings. “Fully 90% of public libraries have e-book lending programs,” yet nearly 40% of respondents believed their library did not provide e-book lending or did not know. And that’s only e-books. Michael Kozlowski of Good e-Reader remarks that, “Notable shares of Americans to not know that libraries offer learning-related programs and materials.” Americans value libraries, but the numbers show that they simultaneously seem to misunderstand them.

The Marketing Solution

The Pew results indicate that a lack of awareness is a problem for libraries, but libraries are already ahead of the curve. The April 2016 Pew survey and previous surveys prove that Americans already think you’re valuable; however they don’t seem to fully understand all that you do. That’s where a little promotion can help.

“The concept of marketing is relatively new in the work environment of librarians” notes Heather Nicholson in Creative Library Marketing and Publicity: Best Practices. “Not long ago, marketing was considered a ‘dirty word’ by information professionals…” (2015: 138). Hopefully, the idea of marketing is coming around. It is important for librarians to keep in mind that the services they offers can only benefit the community if people know about it. And the more people that know, the more good you can do. The Pew survey gives libraries a head start on marketing with a significant demographic statistic that libraries should be mindful of as they move forward.

Who is your Target Market?

One of the most interesting statistics from the Pew survey is the active role of Millennials. The survey indicated that millennials, people ages 18-29, are the most likely to have been a library user in the last year. This number may be spiked due to college students that are scholastically compelled to use library resources. But that doesn’t mean your library can’t use this information to advance your cause. Smart marketers know that if you can establish a pattern, especially at a major life-transition—like say, graduation—then you’ll have a customer for life. Bridging the transition from student-user to a community-user is one effort public libraries could make to expand their committed user-base.

One way public libraries might better serve Millennials is to create mutually beneficial partnerships with academic libraries to better support each other and their young patrons.

Shifting to a personal perspective, prior to joining SirsiDynix, I worked for a public library that often served students from the local university. We encouraged these students to use their University library, as it offered more academically focused resources with in-depth discipline specificity, but the University campus had restricted parking that made accessing the University library difficult. Our easy access drew students. I was happy to help the students, but I often found myself calling the university library to try to satisfy a student’s needs. Communication between our two institutions was inefficient at best.

If your library already partners with the other libraries and collections in your area—good job! Keep it up. If not, consider establishing formal communication between your local academic and special libraries. Seek to find ways to work together to serve your students and you’ll likely have lifetime customers.

A further note on the significance of Millennials as the leading library user: the Millennial demographic is currently in their prime child-bearing years. According to US census data from 2010, the majority of first children are born to women between the ages of 20-29. Professional marketers know that a major change, like having a child, is when a person’s habits are in flux. Here is another opportunity to create lifetime customers. Check out how Target has capitalized on the transition of parenthood. Now there’s no need to be creepy like Target. Just recognize that your Millennials are likely on the path to parenthood. If you can find ways to meet their needs early and they’ll keep coming back.

The Third Space Shift: Room and Rhetoric

Part of the public misunderstanding of libraries services seems to stem from libraries shifting goals. In recent years public libraries are moving toward becoming community “third spaces.” Certainly a great and natural goal for libraries, it seems that many outside the library industry are not aware of this new service. As your library moves to become your community’s “third space,” two strategies seem prudent: the first stemming from the Pew survey and the second from our own observations.

First, in the move toward libraries becoming community third spaces libraries are often required to renovate or otherwise change their physical spaces. As you create those maker-spaces and activity areas, keep in mind the needs of your Millennials. Most public libraries already cater to families with children’s spaces and programming. Be sure you save places for your student-Millennials to escape the kids. Ensure there are places that are quiet and calm. If possible, find ways to physically bridge that gap between other local library institutions. Offer a designated student space, create a collection of items most in-demand by students, host a weekly study hour, or bring in an academic librarian during finals week.

Second, your library might actively shift how you refer to the library and its’ services. Libraries are tireless promoters of their diverse programming and resources, but externally media and the populace may not completely know about or understand these new services. Libraries are ready to be thought of as more than books. And the shift has started. Though an article quite often starts with ‘the library is more than room with books,’ the message is sinking in. The national dialog is shifting. What can you do locally? When your library communicates about itself, be sure to emphasize who you are now and the future you are working toward. When working with your local media, stress to them the important image of a modern library. You have the power to influence the dialogue about your profession. Let’s catch public discourse up with the industry.

Where to Start

Getting word out about what you offer does not mean you need to purchase air time on the local TV station. You don’t need to hire a marketing professional or break the bank funding a campaign. There are lots of things your staff can do themselves, like social media, a monthly email newsletter, or writing press releases for the local paper. Find the appropriate medium to promote what you do and get the word out! Because what libraries do is important and more people should know about it. Now that you have some ideas of who you should be marketing to, your next step is to do some promotion. Here are a few places to look for marketing ideas:

  • SirsiDynix Marketing Your Library webinar with Ben Burdick and Elizabeth Brookbank * Check out Creative Library Marketing and Publicity: Best Practices by Richard Lack and M. Sandra Wood
  • Library Journal Social Media Marketing for Libraries webinar
  • The M Word – Marketing Tips and Trends for Libraries and Non-Profits
  • Ned Potter is an Academic librarian for the University of York in the UK. He’s establishing himself as an authority on marketing, emerging technologies, and social media. Some of Potter’s resources include:
    • The Library Marketing Tool Kit
    • Toolkit Blog
  • New Mexico State Library Marketing Plan Workbook