In pursuit of non-users

Who are the library non-users? Why don’t they use the library? And what does it take to turn a non-user into a library user? These were the questions that Sølvberget – Stavanger Public Library and Cultural Center – focused on over a long period of time. We knew something about those who use our services: something about age range and pattern of use, and something about wishes and needs. But what about those we don’t meet among the bookshelves or on the sofa in the music section?

Motivated by such questions as these, Stavanger Public Library launched a three-year project called In pursuit of non-users. The project was made possible by a collabo- ration with the Norwegian Archive, Library and Museum Authority (ABM-utvikling), which contributed 50% of the funding. The ‘pursuit’ started in 2006.

In Norwegian terms, Stavanger with its population of 120,000 is a big city. It is the most densely populated city in the country. The neighbouring municipalities of Sandnes, Sola and Randaberg have a combined population of a little over 200,000 and the majority of these live less than 30 minutes drive from Sølvberget.

Early on in the project we carried out a non-user survey. This comprised two main parts: focus groups and telephone interviews. The survey was carried out in cooperation with the firm Barometer Markedsanalyse. In order to participate in the focus group, respondents should not have used the library during the previous year. Those we eventually managed to come into contact with had not used the library during the last 5 years, or even longer. Some had never used the library’s services and were therefore the perfect nonuser.

In total, we had four focus groups with 12-15 participants in each. Three groups represented non-users from young adults, families with young children and adults without young children. In addition there was one group of library users. On the whole, the non-users had very positive impressions of the library. Moreover, they assumed that library users were both healthy and smart and that library staff were helpful, knowledgeable and friendly. Nevertheless, they themselves do not use the library. In the group of families with small children, several commented that it was difficult to keep track of what the children had borrowed. At home, these items could easily get mixed up with private things and then find their way to friends and nursery school etc. This could then lead to library fines and compensation for lost items, which in turn was felt to be negative and sent the wrong signals to the children in the family.

Based on these conversations, a questionnaire was devised to be used in telephone interviews. This time it was not only non-users we contacted, but 600 respondents from a representative section of the population. Among other things, the respondents answered questions on what they knew about the library’s services and facilities. Apart from services related to loan of books, CDs and DVDs, there was relatively little knowledge of what else the library has to offer.

The frequency of library visits declines with age. This was not new or unexpected information for us, but when we examine the figures for visits and compare them to gender, we get an unexpected result. It is well known that women visit the library more often than men. In our survey the figures for men are well below those for women in all age groups, except however the group between 40 and 49 years old. This is the peak age for men as library users, and the frequency of their visits is the same as for women. Unfortunately the figures do not stay at this level and from the age of 50 men fall back to their usual ranking, well behind the women, actually further back than ever before – and they stay there.

The reports from these surveys confirmed some of our thoughts and hypotheses, but also gave us some surprising discoveries about non-users. Some of our assumptions that the survey confirmed were that: the internet is a strong rival, that non-users would rather buy books than borrow them (several of the non-users were super keen readers) and many have their needs met through other channels. The clearest message we received from both non-users and users alike was: “Remind us that you are there, and then we will use you more!”


In the course of the project period, we set in motion a number of initiatives to meet the demands that arose from the survey. The two that have left the greatest impression are The Mini Library and The Summer Library. Inspired by the model of the work place library, In pursuit of non-users contacted a number of companies and offered to establish a mini library. The size of the library was adapted to the individual company. The smallest mini libraries comprised a book trolley of about 150 books, while the largest had a collection of 700-800 books. It was clear very early on that the largest collections in the biggest companies worked best. The choice here was so wide that those who were interested found several books that attracted them, whereas the smaller collections required more follow up and change of books in order to maintain interest. Stavanger municipality was the largest work place to get a library, in the canteen of the administration building. Lots of people passed through here every day and the books and literature quickly became a topic of conversation over lunch for a number of the employees. We also used The Mini Library as an arena for book talks, which was greatly appreciated by many working in the building.

In the spring of 2008, In pursuit of nonusers bought an Opel Olympia, 1957 model. It was decorated with Sølvberget’s logo on the doors and its boot was filled with books.When the summer holiday arrived, we were ready to drive our outreach library vehicle around the beaches and shopping centres in the district. Books and audio books of different genres and for all ages were taken out and displayed on the car’s roof and bonnet.

Surprisingly, and quite unexpectedly, this idea attracted a great deal of press coverage. The Summer Library was mentioned on TV, radio, internet and in newspapers, both national and local. Nevertheless it was the reception we got from the public that made the greatest impression on us.When the Opel drove by, people waved and greeted us, and when we parked at the beaches, children often came running up to us to ask if they could borrow books. The car itself became an attraction; it caught people’s attention and became an object of positive interest. Many just wanted to see the car; others asked who we were and what we were doing.When they were interested we told them about Sølvberget and loaned out books. We had access to mobile internet and a PC so we could issue library cards and record loans wherever we were. The equipment proved not to be very effective. The internet connection was slow and in the sunshine the PC screen was unreadable, so a notebook and pencil were much better. The infor- mation was entered into our system afterwards.

The Summer Library has probably not increased our borrowing statistics much, but it has undoubtedly made our public aware that we exist. And not least, we have shown that we remember that the public exist and that we understand the need to enjoy swimming and summer holidays … but we think lying in the sun enjoying a good book makes it even better!

Several of the measures introduced by In pursuit of non-users were completed about the same time as the project itself, but several have been extended. The mini libraries have closed down; all except one where the company (St. Svithun Patient Hotel) decided that it was such a success that they took over responsibility for the running of it themselves. The Opel has been on the road for three summers now and is used in various ways as a representative for Sølvberget, such as distributing books in the project All of Rogaland reads and being used in the poetry stunt for World Poetry Day.

In pursuit of non-users has to a great extent merged traditional dissemination with new ideas, and attracted attention both in professional circles and among the public. Not least, the project has inspired us at Sølvberget to think more about what a library is, what it can be and for whom.

Roar Houen
Project Leader
Stavanger Public Library and Cultural Center
roar.houen AT
Translated by Akasie språktjenester AS

Stavanger Public Library and Cultural Center