Where People Turn When They Need Information

The year 2008 may indeed turn out to be “The Year of Information Overload“, but most Americans may be too busy searching for information to notice. When faced with problems that require information to identify appropriate solutions the internet is the “go to” resource for Americans. According to a new survey, when faced with the need for information for a serious problem (health concerns, career or education decisions, starting a business, seeking government assistance, etc.), 58% of Americans go right to the internet. What does this mean for libraries? Do Americans still seek assistance from professional librarians when they need important information, or has the Internet marginalized us even more than we thought?

The answers to these questions may be found in a new Pew Internet & American Life Project survey study titled “Information Searches That Solve Problems.” This study was released just yesterday, and the report deserves attention from library professionals. According to the summary page “the focus of the survey was how Americans address common problems that might be linked to government.” As any librarian would likely expect the first thing the majority of the survey respondents did was to search the internet. Next, most respondents sought help from a professional, such as a doctor, lawyer or financial expert. Hmm, guess what they say about librarians not being viewed as professional experts may have some truth to it. Actually, libraries (public that is) came in dead last with only 13% of the respondents reporting that they went to a public library for their information.

But here’s an interesting twist on which academic librarians should dwell. The study reports that young adults in tech-loving Generation Y (age 18-30) lead the pack among the 53% of Americans who reported a visit to the library in the past year for any kind of information or visit. Compared to their elders, Gen Y members were the most likely to use libraries for problem-solving information and general patronage for any purpose. Now although the report mostly deals with public library use, I would bet that a good number of respondents in this age category have regular access to an academic library. There’s no indication that the survey asked respondents to identify the type of library used. While we should refrain from jumping to the conclusion that academic librarians can be credited with turning Gen Y into library users, I think this can be seen as an indicator that academic librarians and their faculty colleagues may indeed be having a positive impact on the search behavior of Generation Y.

But before we begin the celebration with some well-deserved back patting, perhaps we need to temper our enthusiasm with this report’s mixed conclusion:

Instead of the internet making libraries less relevant, internet use seems to create an information hunger that libraries help satisfy. But many more people consider going to libraries than actually do. This suggests that libraries should try to untangle the complex web of reasons why different groups of people – even those who might profit most from using the library – don’t in fact use the library, and in some cases, actually shun using it.

I think it would help if the library, especially on our campuses, was a place people wanted to go – a destination – rather than a place they have to go. That’s why more academic librarians are thinking about the library user experience. What can we do to create an environment that will encourage our user community to want to use the library? How do we make 2008 the year of the great library user experience? I intend to explore this Pew report in more detail to learn why people use libraries to search for information – and why they don’t. The complete version of the report is available online.