October 23, 2021

Librarians Take Aim at Pew Study on Parents and Libraries



Sample is skewed to white, well-educated parents, say critics


Pew study graphicA recent national report from the Pew Research Center that stated that most parents consider libraries important for their children has attracted some criticism from the library community, which is concerned that the findings are based on a skewed sample and put too much emphasis on reading.

The study found that the vast majority of parents with children under 18 consider libraries to be important for their children. Three of the top reasons given for libraries’ importance were that they helped to spark a child’s love of reading and books, provided children with information and resources not available at home, and offered a secure environment for children.

But critics of the report, such as Jeri Hurd, a high school library media specialist at the Western Academy of Beijing, and Buffy Hamilton, a learning strategist at the Cleveland Public Library, say that the sample is skewed toward parents that are white, relatively young, and well-educated, and so do not represent the general population.

“I am interested in the literate practices of many families of diverse backgrounds, not just those who have the cultural/school capital,” Hamilton tweeted, taking the discussion to social media.

Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, says the report’s methodology is sound, and that the sample “mirrors the parent population of the United States.”

Indeed, the sample that Pew surveyed was 61 percent white, 54 percent under the age of 40, and 62 percent college-educated. In comparison, the sample surveyed in the Census Bureau’s 2011 Annual Social and Economic Supplement was 59 percent white, 58 percent under the age of 40, and 65 percent college-educated.

“The ages line up, the racial compositions line up,” Rainie says. He does acknowledge, however, that Pew’s sample slightly overrepresented parents of younger children.

In an animated discussion on the LM_NET listserv, Marcia Mardis, an assistant professor at Florida State University and the associate director of the PALM Center, echoes Rainie’s point about the census bureau. But she admits that there were “substantive differences between parents of younger children and parents of older children on questions related to reading, library use, and perceptions of libraries. It seems to be that the most clear caution about applying the findings broadly would be to not overstate the findings for older children.”

Hurd says that she is concerned that the report’s celebration of libraries, if scrutinized, will end up hurting the community. “Librarians really are under attack, and so I understand the need to grasp at something that seems to advocate how significant our role is at schools. But I think we need to be really careful.”

“Frankly, I think Pew let us down on this one,” she wrote on the listserv.

Hamilton tweeted her concern that “advocacy efforts serve as blinders from interrogating data and pushing more representative kinds of data.”

In response to Hurd’s comment, Rainie stresses that Pew is non-partisan and was not in the business of advocating causes. “It’s perfectly OK by us if librarians feel that some of our work is affirming of libraries and some of it is challenging,” he wrote. “We reported what we found in a very well-constructed survey. But we’re not constituted to buck up librarians or ‘let them down.’”

Another concern shared by Hurd and Hamilton is that the report places too much emphasis on reading, which Hurd says ends up neglecting “so many equally important services that libraries offer. It’s kind of feeding into that stereotype.”

“I just wonder what other literacy practices are important and don’t get valued,” Hamilton tweeted.

The report, however, clearly acknowledges other services, with a section discussing parents’ attitudes toward e-books and interactive learning experiences. Indeed, the report shows that parents are largely in support of expanding both e-book offerings (62 percent) and interactive experiences (54 percent).

It’s also important to note that surveys suffer from a self-selection bias; people who choose to respond to a survey about a particular topic may be more interested in that topic than the general population, and as such, may skew the results. Hurd acknowledges this dilemma, but says that it makes it even more important to not consider the survey’s results as indicative of a national trend.


About Hiten Samtani

Hiten Samtani (@hitsamty) is a graduate of the Columbia Journalism School covering the madcap world of real estate for The Real Deal, and a former contributing reporter on education for the New York Times.


  1. I think most people familiar with Pew reports know that they represent a section of the population, not every person in the region surveyed. The report is also clear in their methodology if anyone bothers to read that portion. I just returned from Library Legislative Days in Washington, DC, and I must say our ability to quote some of the “feel good” statements from this report as well as some of the data presented gave the folks we talked to pause, a few lifted eyebrows, and several, “Really? That’s wonderful.” I also do not personally mind that is seems to focus a great deal on books. At least the Pew report is bringing libraries and the important work they do to the forefront of our consciousness for a brief time. Libraries are one of those things that people assume will just be there. Those of us working in the field and having to go to Library Legislative Days to request funding, remind our legislators of the community outreach we perform on a daily basis, remind them how many homeless people and jobless people we serve each day, how many folks we help with job and health care applications, and so forth know very well that there is a real possibility we won’t always just be there. The Pew report was not created to advocate for or against libraries but it is a reminder to the general public that we are here and we provide important services. It is fuel for our advocacy fire. We can complain that Pew even cared to bother to do a survey about libraries or we can thank our lucky stars that someone within that organizations thought to find out what our communities were feeling about libraries. It is what it is and what we do with the information is our choice. I will use it as an advocacy tool and as a method of determining how a slice of the population views libraries and library services.

  2. Tomasina says:

    Many schools, particularly in NYC, are no longer hiring librarians because they earn very high salaries due to their multiple degrees. There is a study needed about the closing of school libraries that are replaced with media centers. When a charter school opens it usually does not have a librarian or a library or a media center and everyone seems fine with this, the schools are allowed to get a charter regardless! This is so wrong because as a teacher, my best friend is the librarian in the building. The librarian should really be the curriculum director of a school because they are so knowledgeable of all of the disciplines and can guide a teacher as to what resources are the most effective.

    • Very well said.It is a travesty that schools do not automatically come with libraries! Are libraries really going to be pushed into a Social Service arena?