Posted by: glundeen | December 31, 2007

The Pew Report on Information Searches That Solve Problems

The Pew Report on Information Searches That Solve Problems has everybody talking, and there’s certainly a lot of food for thought here. Think of it as a far lessed juiced version of the Mitchell Report, and not nearly as scintillating. Not a single illegal purchase of information, information injection or disgraced librarian who won’t make the Librarian Hall of Fame. The greatest thing that comes out of surveys like this is the discussion of the issues, because with out that dialogue it’s all just numbers and wasted time.It’s no shock that people use the internet as a go-to source these days. I know I do.

At my library, the computers undeniably get the people in the door. Our public terminals are almost always busy, and when they’re not working it’s a ghost town. To quote the report:

“People tended to use two or three information sources in their quest and they generally report good results, especially when they consult government agencies, librarians, and the internet.”

There’s always going to be a need for people who can unite other people with information. Just because we offer the public computers doesn’t mean that everyone understands what they’re looking at, how to find it or how to interpret and evaluate it as reliable information. Bridging the digital divide should be central to the public library’s mission, to its very existence in the 21st century. I can think of few greater goals. Naomi Klein’s “Why Being A Librarian is a Radical Choice” pretty much sums up my beliefs on the subject, and if you haven’t read it I highly recommend you check it out.

I don’t see the Digital Divide issue as just an access issue, but one of education and the changing nature of literacy in a networked world. One of the report’s most revealing statistics: when facing a “problem” (defined by the report to include issues such as health care, social services, taxes and employment), 16% of people surveyed consulted TV or radio, and only 13% used the library. I don’t know how to explain that one, but if we’re getting beaten out by this guy we’ve clearly got to step up our game a bit and do better.

Not to mention America’s own infrastructure issues that will have to be addressed regarding bandwidth and access in comparison with the rest of the world. We’re falling behind.

Biggest pet peeve of the report: the use of the word “E-Government,” which I find completely inane. We don’t use the word “tele-government” to describe calling an agency, so why differentiate? Reading that took me back to some of library school’s more insipid moments.

Also: “Generation Y?” Is the 18-29 age group only defined by being born too late to make a Douglas Coupland novel or have listened to Nirvana the first time around? It’s great that the report highlights this group’s high library usage, but we get no clear picture of who these people are or what they’re doing at the library. The 18-29 folks I see range anywhere from recovering addicts to former gang members trying to turn their life around to college kids on MacBooks. Age alone tells us little about usage, other than highlighting how wrong our assumptions about people can be. Lee Raine, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project said:

Generation Y going to the library … is so counterintuitive to our cultural notion or expectation of this age group….

…but what are those expectations exactly? Defining a generation by its “gadgets” isn’t exactly digging deep.I love Meredith’s idea of surveying non-users. In my own informal surveys of my friends, who only ever really ask about the library because I’m a librarian, the common thread is that they simply don’t know what we do, or that we even exist. Surveying non-users would not only offer new information, it would be another way to reach out and let people know what we do, because at very least you’d be reaching the people who take the survey.

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