Have libraries found new relevance in the Internet age?

Quick: What’s the point of a library?

If you said “To borrow books,” then you’re correct, but probably because you were born before 1990. A new study suggests that there’s a new answer quickly gaining ground on the traditional response, with more than three quarters of respondents describing free access to computers and the Internet as a “very important” service that libraries offer.

The study, titled Library Services in the Digital Age, was conducted by the Pew Research Center and looked at the question of what purpose (if any) libraries serve in an increasingly online world; a world where traditional books are en route to becoming more a relic of days of yore with the advent of digital publishing and e-readers. The results of this survey, however, suggest that the demand for libraries may be as high as ever – if for different reasons than traditionally – with an impressive 91 percent of those surveyed for the study (2,252 people aged 16 and over in the United States, interviewed between October 15 and November 10, 2012) saying they believed libraries are important to their families and communities, although they admitted that they weren’t aware of all of the services that libraries offer. Only 22 percent of respondents claimed to know most of the services offered, with 31 percent admitting that they knew “not much or nothing at all” about library services.

When asked about specific services, 80 percent of those asked said they believed that borrowing books was a “very important” service, the same percentage as those who believe that reference librarians are similarly “very important.” Surprisingly for some, however, computer and Internet access ranked almost as high, with 77 percent of those taking part in the survey describing that as very important. Oddly enough, only 26 percent of those taking part in the study admitted to using the computers or Internet in their local library, with 66 percent of them doing so for school or work-related research, and 63 percent also admitting to browsing the Web for fun or a way to pass the time while there.

Overall, interest in the library as a technical resource appears to be rising. A good 37 percent of survey respondents said they’d be “very likely” to use an online reference librarian service, with an additional 36 percent describing themselves as “somewhat likely” to do so. Additionally, 35 percent admitted they’d “very likely” use an app-based form of accessing library information and material, with another 28 percent calling themselves “somewhat likely.” The notion of libraries mirroring forms of entertainment distribution and recommendation already available was also popular, with 33 percent being “very likely” and 30 percent “somewhat likely” to use a Redbox-style kiosk to pick up and drop off material more easily. Lastly, 29 percent are “very likely” to use an Amazon-style recommendation service based upon their borrowing history (35 percent described themselves as “somewhat likely” to do so).

On top of all of this, 53 percent of those taking part said that libraries should “definitely” offer a broader selection of e-books. It appears that there’s a bright future for libraries out there, after all; all they have to do to get there is be willing to change just a little – and let everyone know that they have.

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