Americans Still Love Their Libraries

local libraryI’m trying to remember the last time I visited our local library in our town.  It was more than a year ago … and it was to attend a community meeting, not to check out a book or use the reference materials.

For me at least, access to the Internet at work, at home and on mobile devices has made the library pretty much irrelevant to my daily life.

It wasn’t always that way.

There was a time — not so many years ago — when I went to the library on a weekly basis.  I even traveled to other cities to do business-oriented research in larger libraries that were the designated repositories of U.S. Census Bureau, Department of Commerce and other government publications.

So based on my personal evolution, I was a bit surprised to read the results of a recent Harris Poll that surveyed ~2,300 Americans aged 18 or older on the topic of libraries and their role in people’s lives.

Harris found that ~64% of the respondents it surveyed have a library card — a statistic that is higher than I thought it would be.

[Granted, that library card figure has declined from the ~68% level that was reported by respondents in a similar survey conducted by Harris in 2008.]

The Harris research also found that women are more likely to use the local library than men.  Related to this, more than 70% of women in the survey possess a library card, compared to only ~57% of men.

Children may be a factor in how strong a relationship adults have with their local library, since adults who have children are significantly more likely to patronize the library — and more often as well.

For those who have library cards, nearly 80% reported that they’ve used the library at least once in the past year.  Indeed, more than one-third use the library on a monthly basis or more frequently.

Most library-related activity appears to be for traditional uses:

  • Borrowing books: ~56% identify as the “top reason” for going to the library
  • Borrowing DVDs/videos: ~24%
  • Consuming digital content: ~15%
  • Attending kids/community programs: ~5%

A Community and Education Resource …

library meeting roomRegardless of their own personal library usage patterns, more than nine in ten respondents in the Harris survey consider libraries to be a valuable education resource for their local community.

Nearly as many consider the library to be an important community center and meeting space.

Based on the Harris results, the role of libraries may be evolving more slowly than I would have thought.  And they still play a central role in the nourishment of their communities.

What about you?  How are you using (or not using) your local library these days?  Please share your experiences with other readers here.

Mere Words? Google’s Library Project Speaks Volumes

Google Library Project
Google's Online Library Project: 5 million+ volumes and growing.
An article published recently in Science magazine provides fascinating sociological findings based on researching the content of the growing number of books in Google’s digital library.

Google has amassed a database of some 2 billion words and phrases from more than 5 million books published over the past 200 years. Much of the news coverage about this project has been focused on the intense criticism of some publishers and authors who are concerned about copyright protections and Google’s alleged knowledge “power grab.”

But a more interesting and useful result of Google’s library project has been that linguists have been able to use this trove to measure information and trends based on the language in the books and the people and concepts that are referenced therein.

By analyzing the digitized text of the books in Google’s database in relation to when they were published, the researchers found that they can measure all sorts of trends – such as changing tastes in foods, ebbs and flows in relations between countries, and the role of religion in the world.

For example, references to “sausage” peaked in the 1940s and have dropped off dramatically since then, whereas references to “sushi” began to appear in significant volume in the 1980s.

It’s also interesting to see how references to certain “personalities” grow or decline over the decades. Revolutionary leader Che Guevara was covered widely in the 1960s but has receded since then, whereas Hollywood actress Marilyn Monroe has seen a slow, steady increase in references even decades following her death.

References to “God” have declined steadily since its peak usage in the 1840s, which likely comes as no surprise. More interestingly, references to “men” far outpaced women all through the 1800s and 1900s … until the 1980s when the two were at parity. And by 2000, references to women surpass those of men.

When evaluating emotional concepts, the researchers have found that concepts like “empathy” and “self esteem” have exploded since the 1940s and 1950s … while those of “will power,” “self control” and “prudence” have all declined.

Commenting on the importance of this academic research, Mark Liberman, a computational linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, said, “We see patterns in space, time and cultural context on a scale a million times greater than in the past.”

It turns out that Google’s digital database of books is but a small fraction of the total number of volumes published since the invention of the printing press; that figure has been estimated at ~129 million. But Google’s 5 million+ books are giving us a much more precise view of trends than what’s ever been possible before.

And an interesting ancillary finding of the research is realizing the number of completely new words that have come into use in the English language. It turns out that more than 500,000 new English words that have made their “debut” since 1950.

Google is making this data available at a time when it continues to face criticism about its online library endeavor. The initiative has faced copyright disputes, lawsuits and charges that Google is attempting to create an “information monopoly” (some of which have been sort of settled). But over the long haul, I think it’s a pretty safe bet that people will view the pluses as outweighing the minuses in Google’s library project.