/ Meet Them in the Moment: Engaging Public Library Patrons When It Matters Most


In the winter and spring of 2015, EBSCO’s User Research team conducted a large-scale, qualitative research project to learn more about how people feel and think about their public libraries, as well as how they use them (or don’t).

We found that people have strong, positive associations with their public library, whether or not they engage with it regularly. However, when people are looking for information to help them make a big-ticket decision, their library’s resources are not always top-of-mind.

We also identified patterns in the way people engage with public libraries over the course of their lives, as well as how they find information about their communities inside and outside the library. We believe this data has the potential help shape libraries’ outreach, marketing and programming efforts to captivate different audiences, and to make the library a top-of-mind resource for any information need.


  • By understanding what drives engagement, public libraries may be able to tailor their marketing efforts to spark and deepen that engagement.
  • People find out about what’s going on in their community in all kinds of ways, but word of mouth is still one of the most powerful influences, whether it’s passed along digitally or face-to-face.
  • In-library marketing is still the best way to tell people about what’s going on at the library (yes, we understand the irony), but even people who are in the library regularly are overlooking one invaluable resource: their librarians. Marketing librarians has potential to help people make personal connections to their library and deepen their engagement.


We used a version of Contextual Inquiry, an ethnographic methodology that involves meeting participants where they interact with their public library—in person or online. This means that we met them not just in the physical library, but where they were using public library resources. We met in a lot of coffee shops!


We met with twenty-eight participants who varied in age, geographic location, employment and engagement with their public library.

We started by recruiting one to two users from each of Pew Research Center’s Library Engagement Typology categories. After an initial round of sessions, we spoke to a group of public librarians to understand what user populations might be missing (job seekers and ESL students getting resources and support from the public library) and who we should recruit more of (senior citizens and young parents). We also sought out low- and no-engagement users of all ages, especially those who self-identified as readers who don’t use their public libraries.


Sessions ran from one and half to two hours and started with one question: “Tell me about the last time you used your public library.” From there, participants led an organic discussion about how they use the library (or don’t), how they find out what’s going on in their community and in the world, and how they search for information online.

Data Analysis

To analyze the large amount of data that comes from twenty-eight qualitative research sessions, we used Affinity Diagramming, a process that allowed us to group data points based on participants’ underlying motivations. The patterns that emerged reflected how participants want to interact with the library as well as how they want to read, find information, and engage with their community.


When we began to synthesize the data, it didn't take long for a timeline of public library engagement to emerge (fig. 1). Although this timeline doesn't uncover new behaviors, it does give us a basis for knowing when libraries are strong factors in people's lives and where libraries can improve to increase the public’s engagement.

Figure 1. When do your patrons engage with the library? And how? (Graphic by Suzanne Chapman).
Figure 1. When do your patrons engage with the library? And how? (Graphic by Suzanne Chapman).

Early Childhood: High Engagement

The library experience for many of us starts before we can even walk or talk—let alone read. The main driver of this experience is storytime. Simply saying the word brought out a flood of nostalgia and fond reminiscences of family trips to the library and monstrous stacks of picture books for many of our participants. Storytime is a clear driver in bringing people in the library—and lots of people at that. New York Public Library’s 67th Street Branch has 200 attendees per session during its summertime outdoor storytime. The appeal of storytime is easy to see. What better activity and place for parents to take their kids when it is raining/snowing/boiling hot outside? Not only does this help with early literacy and kindergarten preparation, but it is free, which helps bring in parents at all income levels. Parents can also get some social engagement as well as access to kids’ books.

Middle School: High Engagement

We found that high engagement in the library continues through those awkward middle school years. Outside of school, the public library is one of the few places that tweens are typically allowed to go alone. This newfound freedom and independence is very important for middle-schoolers. Kids get to cut the apron strings and parents get to have some freedom. The library itself is also very important for ESL students. It can be a safe place to go after school as well as get English-language resources.

Much of the strength of this engagement comes as a result from active work from educators and librarians. One of our librarian participants mentioned how they order multiple copies of the same book in different languages so that their ESL kids can read it in both languages.

Many librarians also work with local schools to form partnerships and to help fill any gaps from dwindling school budgets. This can range from homework help and materials to support school curriculum to creative activities like a Minecraft club. An interesting point we noticed was that even many participants who are non-users of the library recognize the value of a tight relationship between local libraries and schools and see this as necessary in their communities.

High School: Low Engagement

Independence is important and now, the world is their oyster! The library as a physical place to hang out has been replaced by places like coffee shops, malls, and other teen hangouts. Beyond this, many high schools also have their own libraries, making the public library less of a need or destination. As a result, high school typically is a time where teens have very low engagement.

College: Low Engagement

Low user engagement continues through the college experience, primarily due to a lack of need and lack of connection. And why is this? Meet the university library. For most students, the university library fills the gap. Not only do these libraries have resources that directly support their studies, but many of these have collections for pleasure reading and even book clubs.

The university library is also near where they spend most of their time. Additionally, many students are also not from the community where their college or university is located and hence do not have a connection with their new city/town. Many do not even know where their local public library is located, let alone understand its services. The college campus is their new community more than their new city or town. Because of this lack of attachment, many students continue without the public library.

Many libraries specifically try to target this demographic with exclusivity programs like New Collection (at Toronto Public Library) and Young Lions (at New York Public Library)

Adulthood: Low Engagement Unless Jumpstarted

The slump of library engagement continues after college unless it is jumpstarted by some action or need such as moving to a new community, job loss, or new parenthood (see below). Because the public library hasn’t been top of mind for years, many of these young users simply don’t think about the public library. Many participants noted that moving to a new community pushed them to seek out and use the public library. Some of this came as a result of outreach efforts (one participant started using the library after receiving a flyer in the mail).

New Parenthood: High Engagement

One major jumpstarter for library engagement is parenthood. Restarting the cycle that started with storytime, parenthood brings the user back into the library. We found that when kids age out of storytime, engagement can dip back again unless the parent makes a personal connection the library. This connection could be a librarian or to one of the activities that the library facilitates, like a book club.

As a result, some libraries are actively trying to create that connection. Since many parents may not have time to pick out their own books, Wake County Public Libraries has a pilot program that tries to lend parents a hand. This program provides a busy parent with their own personalized bag of books that are ready to pick up at the end of storytime (and are even pre-checked out). By anticipating the needs of new parents, the library can build connections that parents may maintain as their children grow up.

Job Loss: High Engagement

Although it is definitely not as happy as child rearing, job loss was another jumpstarter we saw. Not only do libraries provide computer and internet access, but they often have resume or job resource workshops as well as online databases with career advice. Aside from the actual resources a library offers its patrons, sometimes the most utilized is the physical library itself. Job searching can be an isolating and lonely experience and while coffee shops can be a place to turn to, they generally require purchases of coffee, which can add up. Hello, public library!

Retirement: High Engagement

Retirement is another time we see high engagement at the library. Many seniors note that they saw retirement as an opportunity to learn and experience things they didn’t get to in their careers. Now with more free time, seniors can take advantage of more of the resources the library provides. One participant takes classes through a lifelong learning university and uses the library to help her with her coursework. Another commented on utilizing the library’s travel section for trips.

We also saw that many seniors use the library for help with technology. Several of the public librarians we spoke with commented on how seniors make use of their library’s computer services such as training programs or one-to-one tech help sessions.

Marketing—or, How People Discover What’s Up

I’m Social

Humans are social creatures—so it makes sense that we discover the majority of information that we see as relevant to us through social channels. This includes social media, primarily Facebook, but for our participants it was just as likely to include email, text, and in-person interaction.

Twitter vs. Facebook: At one library we spoke to, the Marketing Librarian and Web Services Librarian work together to analyze data of all kinds, including social media interactions. They’ve found that Facebook is great for engaging with locals, while Twitter allows them to engage in discussions about books and libraries on a national and international level.

For the library, this means word of mouth can be an essential form of marketing. We met with several participants who serve as “hubs” for social information in their own communities, the ones who know what’s going on and provide a service by informing others, formally or informally. One such “hub” was a woman whose children were long grown and out of college, but who had developed a strong personal connection with her library because of a book club she and her daughter had joined over twenty years earlier. Because of this connection, she is a strong advocate for her public library and is in a position to encourage others to engage more deeply as well.

I’m Online

For younger participants (below 35), Google was the primary discovery tool for almost every kind of information. When we asked how they found out about what was going on locally that might be of interest, several participants demonstrated a strategy they use on a regular basis: googling “what to do this weekend [my town].”

Users 35+ tended to have trusted sources they turned to regularly—a town events page, a local news website or an email newsletter for parents in the area with listings of kid-friendly events, often including library programming.

I’m Traditional

We heard a lot about what might be considered more traditional news sources over the course of this study, like radio (often NPR) and newspapers (both physical and digital). Interestingly, these news sources were not necessarily more popular with any one age group; participants from all age groups reported finding them valuable.

Flyers & Mailings: One participant talked to us about moving to a new community and receiving a welcome mailing from her new library, including information like hours, programming and how to get ebooks. It jump-started her relationship with her new library and she’s now an avid user.

The other traditional—and less expected—news source we heard about was flyers. When it comes to things that come through the mail slot unrequested, it’s easy to lump flyers in with realtors’ ads, coupons, and catalogs from companies you’ve never purchased anything from. However, participants reported finding physical mailings from community institutions, like the library or an adult education center, extremely valuable.

I’m in the Library

This one gets a gold star because in-library marketing is the most effective way of communicating what’s going on in the library. It’s an obvious catch-22, though—the people seeing in-library marketing are the ones that already come to the library.

Participants talked about walking into the library to pick up their holds, their dance cards already full, and seeing something on a display table that was so tempting they couldn’t help but pick it up. They told us about seeing “Ask Your Librarian About” posters—and then actually asking their librarian.

Promote Books and Librarians: Participants reported appreciating curated content, like Staff Picks shelves and shelf talkers. Libraries can use these materials to promote librarians and help people make connections with them.

Which brings us to one of the most underutilized resources in the library: the librarian. Participants reported anxiety about bringing questions to their librarians because they perceive them as being “too busy” and were concerned about bothering them. They weren’t exactly sure what their librarians were too busy doing—several guessed “taking care of the books”—but the point is, they didn’t perceive their librarians as available to them for help. Participants who had formed a personal connection with their librarian via storytime, a book club, or even just sharing book recommendations at checkout were less likely to feel this way.


People engage and disengage with the public library over the course of their lives. It’s an organic process, a part of the way people relate to and invest in their communities. Public libraries, more than many other kinds of institutions, understand those communities and work tirelessly to offer a rich array of resources to meet their needs. However, raising awareness about the availability of those resources is a huge obstacle, and means that people truly in need may be going without something that’s actually easily available to them.

We hope that by sharing the ways engagement can shift over a person’s life, we can help public libraries overcome that obstacle by understanding how to target their efforts based on specific audiences’ needs, as well as how to deepen existing engagements. We want to encourage readers who want to know more, or who are doing their own kind of experimentation, to be in touch!