Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Berelson, "Who Uses the Public Library?" II

"By and large, the older the people, the less they use the public library." (p. 23)

Berelson uses a good deal of his article to discuss age as a determinative factor of who uses the public library. Through several figures, he rigorously illustrates that in 1949, a large proportion of library users were school-age youths, between the ages of 5 and 15. He states one possible reason for this could be the physical ailments associated with age, i.e., lessened energy or "eyestrain." I wasn't really buying that reasoning.

Yet, he makes a much more compelling argument when he links age and education. He states that increasingly, younger adults have had more formal education than their elders and therefore more experience with written material in general, and the public library specifically. He even speculated that as the number of people exposed to formal education increased, the age of patrons would correspondingly rise. I am curious about the progression from Berelson's observations in 1949 on age, education level, and the public library to age and education level in the public library today. Do school-aged youths still make up a higher proportion of public library patronage today? If Berelson's predictions have turned out correct (and I think it seems that they have at least in part) is it solely due to the proliferation of formal education in our society? Is this a strictly linear progression or have other factors played a role in raising the age of patrons?


Kelly said...

I feel like I've read some book or article before with modern library use statistics broken down by age, but can't remember what it was. A quick Google turned up plenty of stats on library INTERNET use by age, but I haven't found anything on regular library use.

The closest I found was Wisconsin Public Library Statistics, which has a collection of spreadheets covering the past several years.

There weren't any figures for the ages of library card holders, but in Madison in 2004 (most recent year covered) 1,263,684 children's items circulated compared to 3,061,621 adult items. So adults were borrowing considerably more materials.

However, when it came to library programs there were 1,641 children's programs with 56,720 attendees but only 532 adult programs with 8,016 attendees. So the children's programs were averaging about 34 attendees each, while adult programs averaged 15. I don't know if they counted parents or other adults in attendance at children's programs, though.

potter said...

I also found Berelson's initial argument that older adults didn't use the library due to physical reasons to be somewhat unconvincing, and the correlation that he found between education and age to be far more convincing.

I was wondering, however, if the fact that the study was done in 1949, which is immediatley after the US fought in WWI and WWII which caused the age and gender demographics of the country to be somewhat skewed, had any effect on the statistics he found?

Additionally, while I couldn't find any numbers to back this up, it seems to be that while in general his findings remain true there is more use of the public library by older adults, which could be, as Berelson predicts, because the educated, public library using younger adults of 1949 are now of an age to be considered older adults. But I was also curious how much the public library catered to the needs of older adults who might have weakened eyesight, etc at the time of this study as compared to today?

Deanna Olson said...

I think there are other considerations that Berelson does not touch on to describe why children use the library more. In the instance of school children, their use of the library may be connected with school assignments. Also, how developed were school libraries during this time period? Adults may not use the library as much because of more time constraints. They busy with making a living and taking care of their children. It would be interesting to notice if having children affects adult library use. It would also be interesting to see if the location of the library and the make-up of the community also affect who uses the library. Obviously if a library is located in a community with more children than adults, there will be more use of the library by children. I think there is some validity in his point about the correlation of library use and education. It makes sense that an individual would be more likely to seek out information if he or she were trained in methods to do so. Overall I think that Berelson does not consider all the factors when writing about the use of libraries.

Hannah Gray said...

I think the age and education correlation is very interesting too. However, I find the other arguments about why adults do not visit the library regularly pretty shaky. Berelson writes, for example, that married people may visit the library less ofen because they are "presumably more involved in domestic duties and home-making tasks, so that they have less leisure time for book reading than do single people" (Berelson, 39). While I realize Berelson is simply hypothesizing, his quote highlights some of my frustrations with Pawley's book also. So much of the statistics have to be interpreted and often the resulting interpretation is somewhat questionable.

Gillian D. said...

Part of the change in figures, and even the skew towards youth when this was written, can be put down to the baby boomers and the wars.

Libraries have also worked to accomdate and be appealing to older patrons: Large large-print book sections, increased number of audio books, popular materials collections.

As for school age patrons today, I myself think they continue to make up a good chunk of patronage. I think that one factor that adds to this is the fact that teachers will bring classes to the library, or require them to use books for their papers. I wonder if the stats on this sort of thing have flucated much with the rise of the Internet.