Burning platforms and melting icebergs: An exploratory analysis of present strategic challenges and cross‐pressures in the public libraries

Niels Ole Pors (Royal School of Library and Information Science, Copenhagen, Denmark)

Performance Measurement and Metrics

ISSN: 1467-8047

Publication date: 23 March 2010

Abstract

Purpose

The public libraries face several challenges. The most important is probably the economic situation. A second is discrepancies between the profession's perception of the roles of the libraries in the local community and the users' much more traditional views of the constituting elements of a public library service. The third challenge is the rather overwhelming introduction and proliferation of new services and the prioritising of these services. Recent research indicates a possible gap between the public library users and their perceptions of the elements constituting a library and the library profession's struggle to place the public library in the centre of the perceived development of society. This paper seeks to analyse this gap and address questions concerning the traditional roles of the library and the discourses in the profession concerning the public library as a place and an agent for social capital, integration, entrance to the public system, a player in the field of emerging social technologies, and to discuss possible consequences in relation to the significance users, and non‐users, place on different types of service provision. Further, the paper aims to analyse and discuss how public libraries can bridge the gap between the traditional roles and the role as an agent of change or innovation using existing data and user surveys.

Design/methodology/approach

The primary data for the study consist of three large surveys. The first was a nation‐wide survey of high school students' use of libraries and information resources. The second was an in‐depth survey of users and non‐users in a municipality in the Copenhagen area. The third survey is an analysis of perceptions of citizens' services in the public libraries. Supporting data draw from the National Library Statistics and analyses of statements and opinions in the professional literature.

Findings

The results of the surveys analysed in‐depth indicate a clear, very marked and possibly increasing discrepancy between the users' rather traditional perceptions of what constitutes a public library. The analysis employs different segmentation methods, and offers a differentiated view of behaviour and perception in segments of users and non‐users, indicating a very diversified picture of behaviour, perceptions and priorities for different kinds of services. The paper focuses especially on the possible gap between the perceived importance of traditional services and new services and discusses these problems in relation to declining resources and use.

Practical implications

The paper addresses the problem about balancing users' traditional views on public libraries and the need for innovation of both services and service delivery.

Originality/value

The paper presents a dramatic appraisal of trends in Danish public library use, which are applicable to modern public library services worldwide.

Keywords

Citation

Ole Pors, N. (2010), "Burning platforms and melting icebergs", Performance Measurement and Metrics, Vol. 11 No. 1, pp. 9-24. https://doi.org/10.1108/14678041011026838

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Publisher

:

Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2010, Emerald Group Publishing Limited


Introduction

It is obvious that public libraries have changed tremendously during the last decades, especially due to the technological developments. In many countries, the changes are more or less coordinated depending on national strategies and perceptions of the roles of the public library in society. The public libraries in Denmark are used as examples or case studies in this paper. There are good reasons to choose public libraries in Denmark to discuss strategic issues and challenges. First of all, the public libraries in Denmark are probably the most well founded libraries to be found. Second, there exists a very clear national strategy for the public libraries. Third, the public library system is integrated into the national information policy and the cooperation with ‐ for example ‐ research libraries, is mandatory, and there exist national net‐services that integrate the different kinds of libraries. Fourth, the use of public libraries has always been very high compared to most other countries, and fifth, all services are free and it is mandatory for public libraries to provide music, internet access and similar services just as it is mandatory to participate in interlending activities.

Research (De Rosa, 2005) shows that users worldwide have rather traditional perceptions of the public libraries. Therefore, it is interesting to investigate if the rather rapid changes in the service profiles of public libraries are welcomed by users, or if the changes are more or less in any sense counter productive (Case, 2006; Estabrook and Rainie, 2007).

The change processes in the Danish public libraries can be characterised by the two catchphrases ‘burning platforms’ and ‘melting icebergs’. Melting icebergs signify the process with change in service profiles including changes in the composition of collections and introduction of new services. Melting icebergs also signifies the slow but still remarkable changes in users' behaviour for example in their take up of new media and new lending patterns. Burning platforms is a catchphrase signifying the need for rapid and revolutionary change and it can be used to signify the discourse in the public library profession about the need for change in order to adapt to the perceived development in the environment and to secure the survival of the institution.

It is necessary to give a very short background to fully understand the situation. In 2000, the parliament passed a library act that was rather innovative. It confirmed and strengthened the mandatory cooperation between all types of libraries. It made it compulsory to give citizens' free access to internet services. It also made it mandatory to have music collections and urged the libraries to engage in other digital information resources like DVDs and so on. The Danish National Library Authority followed up on the act and has been a prime mover in the development process implementing national net services. The most prominent net service is bibliotek.dk. It is a unique service. It is simply a database including collection data from all and all types of libraries in Denmark. Every citizen has access to the database and has the right to order a book, a CD, a DVD or other kind of materials delivered to a library of own choice. It means in principle that every citizen has the right to borrow materials from every library in the country, totally free of charge. The library authority has established a transport scheme that means that the library system is connected by daily deliveries of materials from one library to another.

In 2007, a reform of the municipalities was implemented which meant that the 275 municipalities merged into 98 new and bigger authorities. This also affected the libraries, which were also merged as a consequence of the reform.

The national library authority has vigorously supported changes processes and innovation by funding projects according to the national strategy in the public library system.

Research questions

We do know that users' behaviour and preferences always have been multidimensional meaning that the average user visited the physical library with several purposes in mind. Often they came for a specific title, literature on a topic or literature by a specific author or authors similar to the one they liked. We also know that they browsed and used the physical library to get inspiration and often took home materials discovered in one way or other. The behaviour in the physical library was very similar to shopping in a supermarket. It meant of course that most users always got at least something of whatever they came after (Kerins et al., 2004; Sadler and Given, 2007; Waldman, 2003).

One could argue that the criterion for success was very closely connected to availability of materials or the proper balance in the collection between supply and demand. This is one of the reasons that the library profession in the 1980s and 1990s had a dominant discourse on collection management (Prabha et al., 2007; Rowlands and Nicholas, 2008).

The discourse in the public library profession has changed rather dramatically during the last decade and have been influenced by several factors. It is evident that the technological development has played a major role emphasising net services and the interplay between the physical and digital library. The discourse is also influenced by factors of a more societal character such as the debate of learning, lifelong education, the multi‐cultural society with associated integration and assimilation problems, serving the broader municipalities, and similar topics. Furthermore, the national information strategy has prominently placed public libraries in relation to helping to foster reading and other kinds of both information and digital competencies. There is also a strong discourse related to the public library as a place, a commons, a third place intended to generate social capital and create cohesiveness in the local society (Svendsen and Svendsen, 2006).

These developments all have significance in relation to the development of the theses regarding the public's traditional view of the public libraries and their objectives.

Based on these observations, the paper will explore the following research questions:

  1. 1.

    How has the public library system's collections and use of the collections changed during the last couple of years?

  2. 2.

    How is the relationship between users' purposes, activities and preferences changing?

  3. 3.

    How is the relationship between service provision, librarians' discourse and user preferences changing?

Methodology

The empirical foundation of this paper consists of several kinds of data. To analyse the general development, the author has used data from the national library statistics (Pors, 2009) and other national and local surveys of users, their behaviour and their perceptions of services and service provision. One of these surveys is a nationwide investigation into high school students' information behaviour (Pors, 2008b), while others are surveys of a more local character. One was conducted in 2006 in a rather wealthy municipality near Copenhagen (Pors, 2008a). Another one was conducted in two smaller municipalities near the city of Aarhus in Jutland, Denmark in 2009. The data from this investigation is presented for the first time in this paper.

The first survey was a nationwide survey investigating high school students and their use of educational libraries, public libraries and a variety of internet‐resources. This survey also emphasised the priorities and the significance placed on services by the users. 998 high school students participated in this online survey (Pors, 2007). This investigation was done in cooperation with the National Library Authority in Denmark and it was designed as a continuation of a previous study concerned with university students' use of libraries and information resources (Pors, 2005). In this survey, we were not able to compare respondents with non‐respondents. The respondents were selected by 30 different high schools all over the country (50 high schools were initially approached but only 30 of them took part in the data collection process).

The second survey was an investigation into users and non – users in a municipality of Furesoe, situated near Copenhagen. The survey was a traditional user survey of nearly 1,000 adults, with an emphasis on needs, behavioural patterns, users' priorities and the significance they placed on different services (Pors, 2006a, b). The Furesoe survey was a representative survey consisting of visitors to the library and a postal questionnaire sent to a random group of others who did not have a library card. The municipality is a rather wealthy community with a very high educational level.

The third survey was conducted in 2009 and it was part of an evaluation of the introduction of citizens' services in a public library system in the second largest city in the country. The survey was conducted in two branches named Lystrup and Tilst, and the overall layout of the questionnaire followed the one employed in Furesoe. Only library users participated and we received nearly 250 responses in both paper and online forms. The data collection took place in June 2009 and this paper represents the first representation of the data from the study.

Taken together, it is believed that the three surveys and the national library statistics form a very solid basis for answering the research questions.

Analysis

The analysis of the data falls in several parts. The first part is a short presentation and analysis of the pertinent figures and trends from the National Library Statistics. The second part is a kind of comparative analysis of the three surveys mentioned previously. The third part is discussion of the data in relation to each other.

Statistical trends

In the first part of this section we will investigate some of the statistical trends that have characterised the public library system as a whole during the last couple of years.

First, we look at changes in the collections from 2000 to 2008.

It is evident from Table I that the composition of the collection has changed rather radically. Books are of course still the major part of the collection, but the decrease in numbers is significant as is the increase in music and films. However, it would be unfair not to include collections of digital materials. Compared to research libraries, public libraries still have a relatively small collection of digital resources but it is growing at a nearly exponential rate. (It must be mentioned that the public libraries have created a portal for music consisting of millions of music pieces from all genres and the number of downloads are proliferating.) Another interesting figure in this context is the number of loans or issues. Issues are calculated by counting those including renewals and those excluding renewals. Renewals are interesting because users have the possibility to renew loans online from their own home.

It is easy to see that issues including renewals have been rather stable during a couple of years but it is also evident that first‐time loans have gone down every year and that renewals are increasing rapidly. In 2008, renewals counted for more than 35 per cent of the total number of issues. Before the introduction of digital libraries in 2000, renewals were only a few percent of the total number of issues (see Table II).

Lending in relation to selected types of materials the figures includes renewals is also significant.

Two factors appear to be of interest here. One of them is the composition of the total lending figure, and the other is the apparently stable number of total loans (see Table III).

There are a several other statistics that are of interest in this context. One is of course the increase in interlibrary lending, and the others are newer figures concerned with other activities and digital resources.

Table IV shows the development of interlibrary lending. It is important to note that the reform of municipalities in 2007 ought to have reduced the interlibrary lending levels due to the creation of larger library systems. However, the interlibrary lending continued to increase despite this and in 2008 it was a bit over 2 million. Most of this is ordered through bibliotek.dk which automatically finds the library with the material that is either immediately available or has the shortest waiting list.

Finally, we have seen a huge increase in both the collection of digital resources, and downloads from them. The total number of electronic resources on external servers is approximately 500,000, which is amazing when just a few years ago it was virtually zero. Downloads are up to 3.5 million, nearly double the number in 2007. It is still just an additional service but it is growing rapidly, and it indicates the public have embraced electronic documents.

These figures contrast to a certain degree to the dominant discourses in the public library profession, which are concerned with modern topics and issues like library as a place and libraries as generators of social capital and societal trust on a more general level. In relation to services the emphasis in the discourses are on issues like lifelong learning, information literacies and integration of the physical library into the digital services. The discourse also contains strong elements on the need for permanent change, for example in relation to continuing professional development. There is also much debate on phenomena like 23 things, Facebook and other social technologies.

A discourse is characterised by dominant themes but is also delimited by themes that do not occur, and these absent themes signifies the themes in the discourse. In the 1980s and 1990s, the library profession focussed on collections and collection management and a central topic was the concept of immediate availability. Today, these themes are missing from the professional debate. There also existed a rather interesting debate concerning the proper relationship between supply and demand in relation to the collection. It is interesting that these topics are seldom discussed now because the different digital possibilities have altered these central concepts. Just to give a few examples, one can ask questions about the links on libraries' web sites and inquire if a link is part of the collection or not. The answer to that question is interesting because if the answer is yes it follows that the libraries have responsibility for dead links on the web site, and for the misinformation contained in some of the links. Another interesting question, is the transformation of topical needs, into specific needs, due to the way people search the digital databases. Librarians are not discussing the increase in book sales or the reasons behind this interesting fact. Is it because of an increasing affluence in society or is it because of a want for instant gratification that the libraries are not meeting?

Many of the elements in a given dominant discourse relates to organisational recipes or standards (Røvik, 1998). A recipe or a standard that becomes a trend has the following characteristics: it often originates in an academic setting but very often it is created in cooperation with the professional world – be it libraries or business. It is blueprinted, by leading members of the academic, and professional communities and it is also taken up by the consultancy industry. Prestigious firm and companies use it. The recipe incorporates the promise to solve serious problems in both the companies and the institutions they are interested in working with. They are marketed and they are frameworks for actions but most of all they are interpretable meanings that institutions can adopt and change according to the national or organisational culture. They are very often connected to stories of success and the story behind the recipe often takes the form of a drama. Successful recipes tend to hit a popular current trend and use this as a kind of vehicle for its travel across boundaries and cultures. Some recipes like the balanced scorecard have a rather long life. Others, which are less successful – such as business process re‐engineering – have a shorter lifespan. It does not mean that they are not used. It could mean that it has been accepted and incorporated in the organisational operations, and that people no longer talk about it as a separate entity. Finally, all recipes have dimensions of both symbolic aspects and content. It is of course extremely interesting which recipes become dominant themes in the discourse of a profession. It is also of huge interest which recipes are not included in a profession's arsenal of discourse themes.

There is no doubt that the profession as a whole has a very determined focus on change and the need for change. The catch phrase that the libraries stand on a burning platform has been brought forward several times in the discourse and this catchphrase has been used as a kind of rationale for changes. This is of course the consequence of a special or peculiar interpretation of the environment. However, there is no doubt that the ideology of, and the need for, change is deeply integrated in the professional identity of public librarians and the leaders in the public libraries. It is an interesting question if the interpretation of the environment is in accordance with other indicators of changes in the environment.

The users in the surveys: objectives and activities

This analysis investigated how long time users stayed in the library during their visit and also extracted data informing us about how widespread the use of digital access to the libraries was. Further, the analysis investigated data related to users' intentions with their library visit and their activities during the visit. A special emphasis is placed on the level of significance users and non‐users place on different kinds of services. Unfortunately, it was not possible to compare all three studies in all these aspects.

The first question related to how long time users spend in the library during their visit. It is as a matter of fact an interesting question because quite a lot of the discourse in the library profession mentioned earlier presupposes that people stay for a considerable time either to study or participate in learning activities or use the library as a third place or a commons. We can answer this question for the two public library studies, but not for the high‐school students study.

It must be emphasised that it is the perceived length of stay that is recorded. Overall, the distribution between the two library systems is similar. In both cases, over 50 per cent of the users spend less than 15 minutes in the library and less than 15 per cent spend more than half an hour. It is a bit hard to explain the difference in visits lasting less than five minutes, but a possible explanation can be that the service points in Furesoe are co‐located with shopping centres. Overall, it is safe to assume that the library visit is similar to a visit to a supermarket or another kind of shop. Users come for something and they get it or take something else, check out and leave rather quickly. In both cases, male users stay longer than female users and the youngest and oldest age groups tend to spend a bit more time than the middle age group in the library – the young users spend more time with the computers in the library and the older users spend more time reading newspapers (see Table V).

The libraries in Aarhus (Lystrup and Tilst) are branch libraries, and the libraries in Furesoe were main libraries. It is of interest to see how large a proportion of the respondents use other public libraries as well, as it is a phenomenon that can influence the activities and the purposes of the respondents. Of the respondents in Furesoe 35 per cent declare that they use other public libraries, and a similar proportion in Aarhus, 36 per cent.

It is also evident that the users in the two surveys have embraced the digital possibilities to reserve, order and renew materials. In Furesoe in 2006 over 50 per cent of the users stated that they often used this facility, while in 2009 over 80 per cent of the users in Lystrup and Tilst stated that they often approached their library through the internet. The differences in figures are probably only due to the three years between surveys, indicating a much higher take up each year. This is supported by the analysis of the statistical figures from the national statistic.

Bibliotek.dk is the national service that gives access to the joint holdings of all libraries in the country. It was initiated in late 2000 and it has spread and is now the most used digital library resource. In 2006, over 50 per cent of the users in Furesoe stated that they used the service and 31 per cent used it at least once every month. In Aarhus (Lystrup and Tilst) in 2009, 34 per cent of the users employ the service at least monthly.

We now turn our attention to the perceived objectives or purposes of the library visit. The survey only gave the respondents a fixed list to choose from, which means that there were probably other objectives, which we did not discover.

In both cases, a surprisingly high proportion of users that state they visited the library in search of, or to pick up, a specific book. It is also evident that printed materials have a higher place in the consciousness of the users than music or films. It is also apparent that the visitors in Aarhus overall prioritise materials more than the users in Furesoe. This could be a consequence of the fact the each of the service points in Furesoe are larger libraries than the service points in Aarhus. However, it is probably safe to conclude that the new media like film and music have gained market shares – both in reality but also in the mind of the users (see Table VI).

Table VII shows the answers about the activities during the visits.

A very striking result is the proportion of users that come for materials they have reserved. That applies to both libraries and the very high figure indicates clearly that users are employing digital services to reserve or order documents. In both library systems, printed materials are mainly what people come for and what they borrow. However it is important to recognize that lending of films and music obviously plays an important role.

Overall, there appears to be a high degree of correlation between intentions and activities even if the two tables cannot be directly compared.

These figures are averages and some trends emerge when we analyse the material in relation to traditional demographic factors. As a whole, visiting intentions and activities during the physical library visit are heavily influenced by gender and age emphasising the need to segment user groups in the planning process. These differences in the use patterns raise the question as to whether there are significant differences in the structure of preferences between the different groups.

In Furesoe, this relationship as earlier (Pors, 2008b), was investigated further. If we take a look at activities during the visit in relation to gender we see some marked differences. We asked the users about 12 activities and in relation to gender we found statistical significant differences in relation to five of these activities. In total, 54 per cent of the female users vs 45 per cent of the male have borrowed books. Of the male users, 24 per cent borrowed music or films, while just 12 per cent of the female users did the same. Male users tend to use the computers, reading places and newspaper collection much more than the female users.

Looking at the same activities by age groups shows that the under‐30s return materials less frequently than the older age groups (which is interesting because there is no difference in the amount of loans between age groups). This probably indicates that the youngest part of the age group succeed in getting parents or friends to return their material for them, from time to time.

The loans of film, and music, declines significantly, with increasing age. The youngest age group is the group that is most often in contact with the staff (42 per cent) and it is also the age group that uses the computers at the public library to search the online catalogue (37 per cent) and to browse the internet, e‐mail, or chat (28 per cent).

It is obvious that the information behaviour is rather traditional in structure if we look at the user groups as a whole. An analysis of the behaviour in relation to factors like gender and age also gives some significant differences. The youngest and oldest age groups make the most intensive use of reading places at the library. The data indicate that the oldest age group use reading places primarily for newspaper reading. Exhibitions are popular among the oldest age groups, with over one third of the users over 60 look at exhibitions, contrasted to just 11 per cent of the youngest age group.

When looking at the user groups of the Lystrup and Tilst libraries, we also find differences in relation to the traditional demographic factors.

We do find the same type of pattern concerning activities in Aarhus (Lystrup and Tilst). It is the male users that borrow music and film, 49 per cent compared with 36 per cent for the female users, and male users also rely more heavily on the PC equipment for searching, surfing, chatting and e‐mailing, with 10 per cent compared to just 4 per cent of the female users. Similarly, it male users tend to read magazines and newspapers in the library to a much bigger degree than female users.

In Aarhus, age also plays an important role in relation to activities. It is very interesting to note that reserving material is rather equally distributed across the different age groups and if we look at the loans of film and music, these activities differ a bit from the Furesoe study, because it is the middle age groups that use this service most. It shows that 53 per cent of the users in the middle age group borrowing music or films, compared to 26 per cent of the over‐55s, and 46 per cent of the youngest user group. One can hypothesise that the youngest group increasingly downloads their films and music. It is also the youngest age group that use the library more as a study place and use the information technology equipment most.

These activities in Aarhus correlate with the stated and perceived purposes of the library visits. If we look at purposes, female users tend to look for more literature than male users. On the other hand, male users are keener on music and films than female users. In relation to age, we do see the same pattern in Aarhus as we did in Furesoe. The wish to borrow music and films declines with age.

The users in the surveys: preferences and significance

The importance or significance of the single services for the users is of course a very important element for the libraries' planning and assessment process. LibQUAL is a measurement instrument that is often used for this kind of investigation as it specifies the minimal level of service people would like, but has not been employed in these surveys. We simply asked people to attach the significance or importance for themselves on different services. The end result is a kind of ranking that is probably rather robust. The importance or significance is calculated on a scale from 0 to 100 and forms the basis of the ranking. The ranking of the importance or the perception of the significance of the public libraries' services follows:

Translated into normal text, one can say that the high school students and the “traditional public library users” prefer a kind and polite service in nice quiet rooms in library with ambience, not too far away and filled with books (see Table VIII).

There are differences between the preferences and significance attached to services among the two groups but rank correlation analysis shows a Spearmans Rho of 0,81, which indicate a very high degree of similarity in ranking the services.

The ranking between the two groups are more or less similar, but there appears to be differences in the importance attached to the service. One explanation for this discrepancy is simple, and it is that the group of high schools students consists of students relying heavily on public libraries and groups or segments that rarely, seldom or never use the public library. This composition of the total group tends to decrease the average figures. In comparison, the respondents from the Aarhus group were all public library users.

In the 2006 investigation in Furesoe, we also asked questions about preferences and significance, but we employed a measurement tool based on forced pair‐wise ranking. It is impossible to make a direct comparison, but one can look at the trends and compare these with caution.

The most striking feature of the answers to this question is the similarity in preferences. The respondents were asked on a forced scale where they had to prioritise alternatives. Overall, the users preferred the present openings hours rather than longer opening hours with less staff service. The preferred more books in favour of longer opening hours or music. The preferred more film than more music. They preferred a broader range of literature more than additional copies of the popular books. We did not find any differences in pair‐wise preferences in relation fiction versus non‐fiction, computers versus more reading places or more reading places versus more places for relaxation or social interaction.

The conclusion is that users – even the young age group – want more documents. It is a very clear first priority. We do see that this priority and preference increases with age, but it is still a very striking result that young people who rely heavily on and use the library's collection of film and music would prioritise books and documents if they had to choose. The preferences and the prioritising are probably an expression of the perception of what a public library is – and ought to be. It is obvious that the structure of preferences in relation to public libraries is rather traditional.

The nationwide study of high school students also showed some interesting features of the significance they attached to the services in relation to different demographic factors.

First of all, there appears to be differences in perceptions of significance and importance dependent on the type of high school. There are three types of high schools in the country. The general high school is the classic one. In Table IX it is called G. There is also a high school oriented towards business topics called B and at last a technical high school called T. The general picture is that the high school students from the general school place more significance on most of the library services than students from the other two high schools do. We also notice marked differences between male and female high school students. Female high school students tend to value the collection of fiction and non‐fiction much more than the male students. It is also interesting to note that the students through their study process tend to place less significance on the library as a place to be and work in. However, overall the ranking of the single services is not hugely affected by this segmentation, but the segmentation indicates that the different groups have very different preferences and strength of preferences attached to the single services.

We do see the same kind of differences in the structure of preferences when we turn to the users in Aarhus.

There are several remarkable figures in the table. It is surprising that the table do not indicate any differences in significance attached to fiction or non‐fiction dependent by gender. It is remarkable that female users value the significance of the web site as high as they do, and that they value it more significantly than male users. Age plays a role in relation to significance of music and film. It is not surprising that the perception of significance decrease with age, but it is surprising that the older age groups i.e. people over 55 value the collection of film and music as high as they do. It is also surprising that the perceived value of the web site is high for all age groups. It indicates that even older users have embraced the digital possibilities (see Table X).

Conclusion

The official statistics demonstrate that the overall operation and service provision of the public libraries are in a maybe slow but consistent change – just like a melting iceberg. The changes in the collection are rather dramatic, with the number of books declining by 26 per cent since 2000, together with similarly dramatic increases in the numbers of music and films. The number of physical documents has gone down by 16 per cent in an eight‐year period. This is mainly a result of an intensive policy of weeding probably, as a result of a strategy for making the library rooms more convenient and inviting together with the need for space for the IT technology.

It is of course not an easy task to interpret the very high increase in renewals. It depends on the perspective of the interpreter. One can look at it as a marked service improvement for the users, but another perspective can be that it signifies a lower degree of altruism and a lower degree of the perceived significance of the library in everyday life. However, independent of the interpretation perspective, the growth of renewals will decrease the immediate availability of documents for users visiting either the physical library or the libraries databases.

The lending figures have been rather stable if one includes renewals in the figure, but the overall pattern is changing with decrease in book lending and increases especially in the lending of films. The lending of music is harder to interpret because it must be seen in relation to the growth in downloads of music.

However, taking renewals into account the number of first time loans has decreased together with the size of the collection and it is not totally leveraged by the number of downloads.

It is also noteworthy that the time users spend in the library on average is short. More than 50 per cent of the users leave the public library in less than 15 minutes. This is interesting in relation to the discussions about the library as a third place, a learning centre or a commons meant for social interaction, creating and supporting the growth of social capital. It is also amazing how pervasive the use of internet access to the libraries have become in just a few years. This comprehensive use of the internet to perform library activities is reflected in the interlibrary lending and in the character of the verbal formulation of the information request or purpose. It is noteworthy that the figures for interlibrary lending have continued to increase in a situation with larger municipalities and authorities. It is in fact an indication of the popularity of the national catalogue bibliotek.dk, which more than half of the library users employ, at least from time to time. Approximately 50 per cent of the users came for a specific book and the proportion of users that came to the library to pick up materials they had reserved is extremely high. In the newest survey from 2009 nearly two thirds of all visitors came to pick up reserved material. The only possible explanation is that users have employed the digital possibilities to the utmost. The figures also indicate that the user requests have increasingly become more specific. The consequence could be that the interchangeability between documents decreases, together with availability.

When we turn to the question about perceived significance it is obvious from the 3 surveys that public library users still have traditional expectations in relation to the service provision of the public libraries. Across all studies it is evident that the users prefer information be it in physical or digital form as the most important service in libraries together with a kind service. Fiction and non‐fiction are high on the ranking of preferences and even if the new media score rather high both in preferences and in use, they lag behind as being judged as less important for the users. However, we do see that users take up the new services and the data indicate that especially the young users and users in the ‘families with children’ age span have a rather intensive use of films and music.

Another very interesting development is the significance that is placed on the library web site. This indicates together with the pervasive use of the internet services that people increasingly have embraced the digital library. However, the data also indicate that it is pertinent to analyse the users in a segmented fashion as we do see many variations in relation to the different demographic background factors. It is for example very obvious that male and female users act and behave different during their library visit and it is also very evident that age plays a very huge role both in relation to perceived significance and in relation to actual behaviour and stated purposes.

These results make it very evident that it is extremely important to segment and analyse segments of users investigating their behaviour, purposes and preferences.

One remaining question is the long‐term effect of diminishing availability of documents in a broad sense. This question cannot be investigated in depth in this paper but the data and the analysis in this article indicate the need for a kind balance. The balance is needed because many of the developments in the public library appear to be fostered by librarians perceiving themselves on a burning platform. This perception of the constant need to innovate and create new services force rather radical changes in the service provision. In contrast to this, we see that the users' preferences, purposes and activities changes, but changes slowly like a melting iceberg.

Table I  Collection and collection changes in Danish public libraries in millions

Table I

Collection and collection changes in Danish public libraries in millions

Table II  Issues and renewals in millions

Table II

Issues and renewals in millions

Table III  Lending (first time issues and renewals) in relation to types of material in millions

Table III

Lending (first time issues and renewals) in relation to types of material in millions

Table IV  The development of interlibrary lending in public libraries (in thousands)

Table IV

The development of interlibrary lending in public libraries (in thousands)

Table V  The perceived length of the library visit in per cent

Table V

The perceived length of the library visit in per cent

Table VI  The users' stated purposes in relation to their library visit in two libraries in per cent

Table VI

The users' stated purposes in relation to their library visit in two libraries in per cent

Table VII  The users' activities during their library visit in two libraries in per cent

Table VII

The users' activities during their library visit in two libraries in per cent

Table VIII  The users' perception of the significance of different services in two surveys

Table VIII

The users' perception of the significance of different services in two surveys

Table IX  The students' perceptions of the importance of services and facilities in relation to demographics

Table IX

The students' perceptions of the importance of services and facilities in relation to demographics

Table X  Perceptions of significance of services and facilities in relation to demographics in Aarhus

Table X

Perceptions of significance of services and facilities in relation to demographics in Aarhus

Corresponding author

Niels Ole Pors can be contacted at: nop@db.dk

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Further Reading

Pors, N.O. (2006), “The public library and students' information needs”, New Library World, Vol. 107 Nos 7/8, pp. 27585.

Pors, N.O., Dixon, P. and Robson, H. (2004), “The employment of quality measures in libraries: cultural differences, institutional imperatives and managerial profiles”, Performance Measurement and Metrics, Vol. 5 No. 1, pp. 208.