U.S. Public Libraries and the Use of Web Technologies

The use of interactive web technologies on public library web sites in the United States has been a topic of much discussion in recent years, and a shift in certain types of user services is underway. Terms like “Web 2.0” and even “Library 2.0” have become common in library literature and at conferences as those on the early edges of this shift share their successes and failures with the broader library community. The Library Research Service (LRS) was interested in adding to this conversation and, in late 2007, designed the study U.S. Public Libraries and the Use of Web Technologies. In spring 2008, LRS staff visited the web sites of nearly 600 public libraries in the United States, searching for the existence of certain web technologies, including technologies defined as “Web 2.0.” The web sites that were examined were drawn from a stratified sample of public libraries in the United States, with approximately equal numbers of libraries included from each of five different population ranges. Additionally, staff visited the web sites of all public libraries in Colorado. Two main sets of results were derived from the study: 1) how many public libraries in the United States (and Colorado) were implementing certain technologies on their web sites, and 2) what were the characteristics of the libraries that could be identified as “early adopters” of web technologies. A third set of conclusions – does the early adoption of such technologies increase the libraries success in traditional service areas – awaits the release of more current, available national public library data.

For the most part, public libraries in the United States have been relatively slow to adopt the more interactive Web 2.0 technologies. In fact, as a whole, public libraries have been rather slow in adopting even the most basic web technologies. Just over four in five (82%) public libraries in the country had a web presence, and just over half (56%) offered online account access to their patrons. Not many were reaching out to their patrons by utilizing some of the newer technologies available. Less than a third of public libraries in the United States offered any of the following that LRS staff could locate: a blog, e-mail reference, or chat reference. Hardly any had moved onto popular social networking sites that were often mentioned in library conferences and literature. As might be expected, the smallest libraries in the nation were those that were least likely to have any of these web technologies – not even three-fourths (73%) of libraries serving fewer than 10,000 had a web presence found by LRS staff, and fewer than half of them offered access to their online catalogs. Very few provided any web technology whatsoever beyond the most basic. Larger libraries, while much more likely to have adopted the technologies, were still far from universal in their adoption of anything beyond the most basic.

Libraries that were in the top twenty percent of their population group in terms of number of technologies adopted were labeled “early adopters” for the purposes of this study. Based on 2005 national data, which was the most recent data available at the time of the study, these early adopting libraries were more successful, by traditional measures, than their peers. Libraries that were early adopters were much better funded and staffed than other libraries, and in fact surpassed their peers by large margins on nearly every statistical measure. These libraries had more visits, circulation, reference transactions, and programming use, as well as more audio and visual materials. The one notable statistic where early adopting libraries did not outpace other public libraries was in the number of books held. Since the national data was from 2005—before most of this technology was implemented—it can be suggested that successful public libraries in the United States had decided to put their resources into more advanced web
technologies. Determining whether these ventures onto the web were successful should be the focus of follow up studies.

At this writing, a follow-up study is being designed. In spring 2010, LRS staff will again take the pulse of U.S. public libraries in relation to web technologies. For more about these studies, please visit http://www.lrs.org/public/webtech/.