U.S. Public Libraries and the Use of Web Technologies, 2012


This report presents the results of the third iteration of the biennial study, U.S. Public Libraries and the Use of Web Technologies. The Library Research Service launched this study in 2008 with the intent to document the use of various web technologies on the websites of public libraries throughout the nation. From its inception, it was conceived as a longitudinal study, with plans to revisit the sample libraries every two years to track changes in libraries’ uses of web technologies. The study is conducted as a content analysis: researchers analyze a random sample, stratified based on legal service area (LSA) population, of public library websites throughout the United States (584 in 2012), as well as the websites of all public libraries in Colorado (114—9 of which are in the national sample). The results of the 2008 study set a baseline for the adoption of web technologies nationwide. The study was repeated in both 2010 and 2012, and these iterations expanded upon the 2008 findings by tracking the trends in U.S. public libraries’ use of web technologies over time as well as by examining new technologies as they emerged. Highlights from the national portion of the 2012 study are presented below:

In 2012, most U.S. public libraries in the sample had websites, including:

  • all of those serving LSA populations of 25,000 and more;
  • 98 percent of those with LSA populations of 10,000 to 24,999; and,
  • a little more than 4 in 5 (83%) of those serving LSA populations less than 10,000 (up from 71% in 2010).

Over time, library websites were analyzed for the presence of several web features that enable interactivity with users (for example, virtual reference, blogs, etc.). Some notable findings included:

  • Generally, the biggest increases in terms of adoption of these features occurred in the smallest libraries. This was true for online account access (45% in 2010 vs. 70% in 2012), blogs (6% vs. 10%), RSS feeds (10% vs. 20%), and catalog search boxes (14% vs. 25%).
  • In contrast, in larger libraries, many of these features either remained relatively constant or declined from 2010 to 2012. One notable exception was text reference, which increased from 13 percent to 43 percent in libraries serving more than 500,000.
  • In most libraries, regardless of size, ShareThis/AddThis features increased, email newsletters and online library card sign up held relatively constant, and chat reference dropped from 2010 to 2012.

The majority of libraries had social media accounts:

  • Almost all (93%) of the largest libraries, a little more than 4 in 5 (83%) libraries serving between 25,000 and 499,999, 7 in 10 (69%) of those serving 10,000 to 24,999, and 54 percent of the smallest libraries had at least one social media account.
  • Of the 9 social networks that were analyzed, libraries were most likely to be on Facebook (93% of the largest libraries, 82% of libraries serving between 25,000 and 499,999, 68% of libraries serving between 10,000 and 24,999, and 54% of the smallest libraries). From 2010 to 2012, the smallest libraries had the biggest jump in adoption of this social network, from 18 percent to 54 percent.
  • Other common social networks were Twitter (84% of the largest libraries were on this network) and YouTube (60% of the largest libraries). Flickr was also common, however, it has decreased in all population groups from 2010 to 2012; for example, 63 percent of the largest libraries used this social network in 2010 versus 42 percent in 2012.
  • Close to one-third (31%) of the largest libraries were on Foursquare, 23% were on Pinterest, and 8 percent each were on Google+ and Tumblr.
  • The largest libraries were on an average of 3.54 social networks out of the 9 included in the analysis, whereas the smallest libraries averaged less than 1.

Since 2010, the number of libraries that catered to mobile devices has increased dramatically:

  • Three-fourths of the largest libraries, about 3 in 5 libraries serving between 25,000 and 499,999, one-third of libraries serving between 10,000 and 24,999, and 17 percent of the smallest libraries offered some type of mobile-friendly website access. In contrast, in 2010, 12 percent of the largest libraries, 3 percent of libraries serving between 100,000-499,999, and no libraries serving less than 100,000 offered mobile-friendly website access.

In terms of the specific type of mobile access,

  • 3 in 5 of the largest libraries, about half (48%-52%) of libraries serving between 25,000 and 499,999, 1 in 5 (19%) libraries serving between 10,000 and 24,999, and 2 percent of the smallest libraries offered mobile applications (apps);
  • 2 in 5 (41%) of the largest libraries, about one-fourth (23-25%) of libraries serving between 25,000 and 499,999, 1 in 5 libraries serving between 10,000 and 24,000, and 14 percent of the smallest libraries had mobile versions of their sites (i.e., the URL redirected to a mobile version of the website when viewed on a mobile device); however,
  • just 9 libraries used responsive design.

Related information:



The Public Computer Centers Project: Coloradans Benefit From Access and Training

Since the spring of 2011, Coloradans of varying ages and stages—in communities large and small across the state—have been taking advantage of the opportunity to use 88 Public Computer Centers (PCCs), free of charge, individually during open access time as well as by taking computer classes. Located primarily in public libraries (or other public spaces in communities without libraries), the PCCs offer a variety of computer equipment and services based on community needs. Grant funding for the PCCs, totaling $3.3 million, was obtained in 2010 from the federal government’s Broadband Technology Opportunity Program (BTOP) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as through matching and in-kind donations from the Colorado State Library, local libraries, and community organizations statewide.

During the winter and spring of 2012, more than 7,300 adult users (18 years and older) of these BTOP PCCs were surveyed by the Library Research Service, a unit of the Colorado State Library, to understand who is benefiting—and in what ways—from open access to PCC computers as well as computer classes. The findings indicate that respondents experienced a variety of outcomes as a result of their use of the PCCs.

U.S. Public Libraries and the Use of Web Technologies, 2010

It’s well known that technology is changing at an increasingly rapid pace and that many public libraries throughout the United States are attempting to adopt new technologies to better reach their patrons. In trade journals, blogs, and at library conferences, professionals in the field have continually discussed the best methods for using web technologies to enhance the success of the public library. In keeping with this discussion, in late 2007 the Library Research Service (LRS) designed the first iteration of the U.S. Public Libraries and the Use of Web Technologies study. In the midst of a conversation largely focused on best practices, this study was envisioned from its inception as a longitudinal study with several goals. Primarily, it attempts to record the landscape of web technology adoption by public libraries in the United States. While most of the discourse thus far has focused on what should and should not be done to better use technologies, there has not yet been much research examining how and how many libraries actually are adopting various web technologies. This study attempts to put that in perspective. Another intention of this study is to examine the characteristics of the libraries that are adopting technology in an attempt to tease out the factors that lead them to try out various tools. We are also interested in determining whether or not the adoption of specific types of technology leads to “success” as traditionally defined in public libraries. This report represents the second iteration, and refinement, of the study. It captures a changing landscape of web technology adoption by public libraries and looks further into the characteristics and successes of libraries that adopt technology.

The first iteration of this study found relatively low adoption levels of more interactive web technologies, despite the popularity of “Web 2.0” themes in the national literature and conference dialog. Depending on the type of technology, the increase in adoption rate for public libraries ranged from very little, if any, to incredible leaps and bounds. The area that was most embraced during the two years between studies was social networking, especially among the largest libraries. Most notably, the social networking site Facebook moved from a relative non-factor to near ubiquity in large libraries: for libraries serving communities of at least 500,000 people, the ratio of those with a Facebook presence jumped from barely one in ten in 2008 (11%) to 4 out of 5 (80%) in 2010. Similar, though less drastic increases were found in libraries serving other population groups, and the estimated percentage of all public libraries in the United States to have a Facebook presence rose nine-fold, from only 2 percent in 2008 to 18 percent in 2010. Libraries’ use of other social networking sites, such as the photo-sharing site Flickr, saw large increases also well. During this study, researchers also looked for the presence of a web site directed at mobile users. Very few public libraries were targeting mobile users online at the time of the study, but outreach to mobile technologies seems like an area potentially poised for an explosion similar to that of use of social networking sites. Whereas a few years ago social media was a topic of heavy discussion at conferences and in library literature, the current topic du jour tends to be mobile devices. Most notable is a series of virtual conferences, such as Handheld Librarian, dedicated specifically to mobile devices.

More traditional public library web technologies, such as web presence and online account access, seem to have plateaued. Nearly all libraries that serve over 25,000 people already had some of these basic services by 2008, so there was not much room for growth. Based on our research, the smallest libraries did not see much increase in basic online services, either. In fact, a lower percentage of libraries serving fewer than 10,000 people had a web presence at all during this iteration of the survey, as compared with 2008 (73% vs. 71%). Some of the standard but slightly more interactive web technologies, such as email reference and blogs, tell a similar story to that of basic web services in that they showed little, if any, growth among most population groups. One of the few exceptions was in social media, which saw exponential increases across the board; other than that, it was primarily the largest libraries (those serving more than 500,000) that demonstrated substantial increases in their adoption rates. In fact, greater technology adoption among the largest libraries in the country was a general theme in comparing the overall public library web technology landscape between 2008 and 2010. Instead of a flattening of the percentages of libraries adopting certain technologies across the board, it seems that the gap between big and small libraries is growing in terms of the technology offered on their websites.

Just as in the first version of the study, libraries that were in the top twenty percent of their population group based on the number of technologies adopted were labeled “Early Adopters.” The most recent public library statistical data available (2008) from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), indicates that libraries we identified as Early Adopters again fared much better on traditional statistical measures than their peers, both in terms of inputs and outputs. Early Adopters were better funded and better staffed than other libraries and also saw greater outputs in visits, circulation, and programming. The major inference from this analysis is that public libraries that have been successful in the past, when measured by traditional means, have also chosen to put resources into the adoption of new web technologies.

Revisiting the observational data from the first iteration of the study, researchers found that libraries identified as Early Adopters in 2008 saw significantly greater increases in visits and circulation between 2003 and 2008 than their peers who had not been as active in the adoption of these technologies. Regression analysis suggests that, even when controlling for staff and collection expenditures, adoption of web technologies is a predictor of these increases.

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/.

Colorado Public Libraries & the “Digital Divide” 2002

(corrected October 2004)

Public libraries in Colorado are bridging the technology gap that is symptomatic of the “digital divide.” The availability of technology in public libraries fulfills a highly demanded patron need spanning all demographic groups. “The rate of growth of internet use in the United States is currently two million new internet users per month. … Internet use is increasing for people regardless of income, education, age, races, ethnicity or gender.” The technology have-nots are not just the poor and under-educated. People from all walks of life rely on the internet access provided by public libraries. This survey shows that library patrons are teaching themselves new technology skills, communicating on a global level, and accessing online information regarding education, health, employment, and volunteer opportunities. As a result, they are able to improve their personal quality of life and that of their communities.

Technology in public libraries spans all demographics and fulfills a highly demanded patron need. Of responding public library internet users:

  • 84% indicated that the availability of computers in the library was one of the reasons for visiting the library that day.
  • 34% have no other access to the internet except through public internet computers.
  • 60% of those younger than 18 use public internet computers to work on school assignments.
  • 49% use the public internet computers for internet access more than once a week.
  • 24% of the people indicating the use of the public internet computers more than once a week were below poverty level.
  • 42% of those who use library computers more than once a week, have a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Technology have-nots are not limited to the poor or under-educated. Of responding public library internet users:

  • Men (53%) only slightly outnumber women (47%) in their use of public library internet access.
  • 67% of respondents indicated college-level coursework and higher.
  • 50% of those who rely on internet access through the public library were between 30 and 54 years of age.
  • 71% of survey participants reported no minor children living at home.

Public library internet users are teaching themselves new technology skills, communicating on a global level, and accessing online information on a wide variety of topics. With access to online information about education, health, employment and volunteer opportunities, they are improving their quality of life and that of their communities. Of responding public library internet users:

  • 72% identified searching for topic-specific information as their primary activity at public internet computers.
  • 38% have used public internet computers to look for a job.
  • Patrons who improved their income via public internet computers were twice as likely to be young adults between the ages of 18 and 29, the majority of whom made below $18,000 annually and were predominantly male.
  • 38% of those working on college assignments were minorities; of those people, 21% were Hispanic.
  • 49% of those seeking educational opportunities using public internet computers were female.
  • Colorado’s youth were twice as likely as any other age group to use public internet access to find volunteer opportunities. Example: 13% of those people under 18 versus 6% of patrons ages 30-54 and 4% of patrons 55 and older.
  • 20% of respondents spent time seeking health-related information on public internet computers.
  • 62% of respondents seeking health-related information were female.