The New Digital Divide

I am currently reading John Palfrey’s book Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Native. In the book, Palfrey presents evidence that those born after the Internet age —mostly younger adults born after 1980 and raised with access to computer technology and the Internet—have dissimilar views on privacy and property rights than the “digital immigrants”—that is, everyone else.


However, a recent study by OCLC claims that variations between the habits and attitudes of younger people who have grown up with Internet technology and those born before the Internet era are no longer easy to sort out. The swift acceptance of Internet and mobile applications by users of all ages indicates that the time has arrived when it is no longer valuable to compare outlook and behaviors of people born before personal computers were common and those born after. The study suggests that due to the extensive adoption of digital technologies over more than twenty years, the behaviors of these two generations are beginning to converge. The usage of many Internet activities has grown considerably. Search engine use has gone from 71% to 90%. E-mail use has grown from 73% to an outstanding 97%. And the use of blogs had grown from 16% to 46% in 18 months. The use of mobile technologies has grown even more rapidly.


Librarians have spent a fair amount of time studying differences skill sets between “digital natives” and the older generations. What I really want to see is a study that examines fully the income disparity across the digital landscape. For many Americans, the now-commonplace Internet is still a luxury item they cannot afford. Nearly every public library in the country offers free Internet access, and for many people, the library is the only place they can get online. The digital divide can no longer be said to split generations, but it still exists at the income gap.

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Public Perception of The Role of Libraries

In a world of declining readership, libraries face an uncertain future if they fail to rebrand. Pew Research Center’s recent study of the reading habits of Americans 16-years or older has indicated a disquieting but not surprising trend—that readership of print books is declining. According to the study, 67% of adult Americans had read a book in 2012, down from 72% in 2011. Continuing the trend would mean books appealing to a niche market.

Public libraries have always been associated with books. Libraries sponsor read-a-thons, reading clubs, book groups; many libraries adopt a logo featuring an open book. Librarians regularly raise awareness of banned books and literacy readiness among children. Literacy efforts are, and should be, one crusade commonly supported by libraries.

Everyone who works at or regularly visits a public library can tell you that libraries offer so much more. We provide access to job and career advice, legal, medical, technical and governmental information. We offer meeting spaces, access to scholarly journals and magazines for browsing, computers, storytelling, games, events, education, book discussions, wireless access, volunteer opportunities, tutoring, and a nice cup of coffee. Loitering is, in fact, encouraged. Our expert staff guides anyone who asks through the wilderness of ideas, information, and entertainment. We serve all members of the public equally. No other industry can make that claim.

According to a 2012 OCLC report, 62% of library personnel surveyed indicate that borrowing books is the top reason patrons use the public library today. And that figures complies with a recent ALA study showing that 75% of library visitors come to check out books. While that is part of what we offer, it should by no means define us. In an age when printed books are increasingly seen as outmoded technology, binding the library with the notion of printed books verges on dangerously assigning the library to an anachronistic role.

So while we do provide books, our role is much greater than that. Our role reflects the interests of the city, as the demographics change the library adjusts its goals. The library is a function of the community.

In short, the challenge is to rebrand the public library image from a stodgy old warehouse of books to a true welcoming community living room that has something inside for everyone.

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What broke?

A challenge facing libraries is the tendency to migrate away from the traditional model of public library funding. In the library field we have a funding model. It can be simplified thus: the library provides free services to a patron base or municipality. The members of the public in that municipality in turn support the library and make it known to city officials (either by voicing their opinions, or by ballot box) that the city should fund the library to keep the services free. The city then funds the library at a level to maintain or grow service.

Somehow though, that model broke. The libraries began charging fees for services; the public stopped vocalizing their support of the library; or the city officials stopped funding public libraries at a level to offer the services. Which came first, and who is to blame is a topic for another post. Once one portion of that model fails, the previously happy cycle begins to break down at each element. The library charges for services, the public support wanes, and the municipality, seeing either a self-funding library or an apathetic public decides to fund the library at a lower level.

All across the country public libraries are trying to blend business models to narrow the revenue gap, with predictably mixed results. The libraries serving the largest population are those which charge their patrons the most for the most core library services, such as placing holds and borrowing best sellers. Understandably, public response is negative with 87% of the public served by the libraries which charge fees are opposed to those fees, saying “I remember when the library was free”. It’s not just the biggest libraries either, approximately one-third of public libraries have fees attached to core services, the most common fee being a charge for borrowing DVDs.

The revenue generated is rather trivial; for libraries of municipalities sized between 10,000 and 25,000 residents, the median revenue of fee-based services comes to about $2,000, or about 0.3% of our total revenue. Coffee shops and gift shops in a library might generate a little more revenue, or more likely will struggle to break even and will have to be closed. I encourage libraries to open gift shops, cafés, and copy centers; but you cannot hope that those ventures are cash-cows.

The economics won’t work in our favor. This example is from Dan Ariely’s 2008 behavioral economics book Predictably Irrational: If a friend asks you to help him move, you might be willing to help out. And if he offers to buy you a pizza for your troubles, you’d gladly accept, and you’d be happy to assist. But if the friend offers to pay you $10 (the price of a pizza) to help him move, you are more likely to tell him to jump in a frozen lake. In the first example, your relationship operated in the friendship mode; in the second example, your friend tried to move your relationship into the business mode, yet didn’t offer the market rate for helping him move. Libraries attempting to shift into the business model and charge fees for services will similarly get the cold shoulder from the public. The downside to making money is the potential loss of love on behalf of the public.

The fees public libraries charges for some services are meant only to cover costs. Lamination, faxing, inter-library loans, ear-buds, for example, cost the library material expenses. Other fees such as fines for late returns or for unclaimed ILLs are meant to alter behavior. I maintain opposition to the imposition of fees and of the entrepreneurial trend among libraries. My previous library gave away $3.3 million worth of service in the previous year, why should we quibble over a small percentage of that?Image

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