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