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Public libraries as reserves of cultural and digital capital: Addressing inequality through digitalization


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Public libraries are among key sites for the acquisition of cultural capital, and possibly one of the most potent means through which the state can address inequality. While digitalization of public libraries already attracted significant scholarly attention, the evidence of its contribution to the acquisition of cultural skills and knowledge and social mobility remains limited, as does the conceptual understanding of links between digitalization, cultural capital, and social stratification. This article draws on two disconnected bodies of research, the sociological analysis of cultural capital and stratification and research on digital divides. To bridge these two bodies of research, the interplay of cultural and digital capital in public libraries was investigated. The extensive dataset from the UK Taking Part Survey (2016–17) was analyzed using two-step cluster analysis and multinomial regression models to explore the contrasting profiles of contemporary library users. Results identify four distinct user groups: Traditional, Active, Family, and Tech Access, which possess different degrees of cultural and digital capital, have different demographic profiles, and benefit from digitalized libraries in different ways. If libraries are to fulfil their role in reducing social inequalities, it is important that they tailor their digital services to the specific characteristics of each user group. This approach also provides a useful template for exploring the interplay of digitalization and (in)equality in other cultural institutions.
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Public Libraries as Reserves of Cultural and Digital Capital: Addressing Inequality
through Digitalization
Adrian Leguina
, Sabina Mihelj & John Downey
School of Social Sciences and Humanities, Loughborough University
How to cite:
Leguina, A., Mihelj, S. & Downey, J. (in press). Public Libraries as Reserves of Cultural and Digital
Capital: Addressing Inequality through Digitalization. Library & Information Science Research.
Accepted version, June 24, 2021.
Public libraries are among key sites for the acquisition of cultural capital, and possibly one of
the most potent means through which the state can address inequality. While digitalization of
public libraries already attracted significant scholarly attention, the evidence of its contribution
to the acquisition of cultural skills and knowledge and social mobility remains limited, as does
the conceptual understanding of links between digitalization, cultural capital, and social
stratification. This article draws on two disconnected bodies of research, the sociological
analysis of cultural capital and stratification and research on digital divides. To bridge these
two bodies of research, the interplay of cultural and digital capital in public libraries was
investigated. The extensive dataset from the UK Taking Part Survey (2016-17) was analysed
using two-step cluster analysis and multinomial regression models to explore the contrasting
profiles of contemporary library users. Results identify four distinct user groups: Traditional,
Active, Family, and Tech Access, which possess different degrees of cultural and digital
capital, have different demographic profiles, and benefit from digitalized libraries in different
ways. If libraries are to fulfil their role in reducing social inequalities, it is important that they
tailor their digital services to the specific characteristics of each user group. This approach also
provides a useful template for exploring the interplay of digitalization and (in)equality in other
cultural institutions.
1. Introduction
Public libraries are among key sites for the acquisition of cultural and digital resources, and
possibly one of the most potent means through which the state can address inequality. In many
countries around the world libraries play a unique role in the cultural sector, providing support
from the cradle to the grave, as places for learning but also empowerment for those lacking
opportunities at home. While library use and its benefits could be seen as domains of traditional
high culture, public libraries provide democratic access to information, skills, and knowledge.
Scholars and policymakers also recognize the importance of libraries as a means of bridging
the digital divide, providing hardware, software, and internet connection, increasing digital
literacy and potentially empowering citizens to improve their living conditions. However, in a
context of rising socioeconomic inequalities, budgetary constraints, and growing pressures for
public services to justify their existence, public libraries often make difficult decisions
regarding which services to prioritize. This may involve decisions over whether, for instance,
to invest in more physical copies of books, prioritize investment in remote digital access to
library resources, or invest in improving access to digital technology and Internet on site.
Having a strong evidence base that shows which services can make a difference in reducing
social inequalities can play an important role in making the right decision.
Cultural class analysis focuses on the role of culture in reproducing class divisions and their
relations to power (Savage et al., 2015). As such, it provides a powerful tool for assessing the
capacity of cultural institutions, including libraries, to overcome inequality. Yet, cultural class
analysis has so far paid little attention to how the role of culture in the reproduction of social
divisions may be changing due to digitalization, namely, the restructuring of different domains
of social life around digital communication infrastructures (Brennen & Kreiss, 2016). At the
same time, scholars concerned with the digital divide continue to point to persistent patterns of
inequality in social uses of digital technologies. Even when barriers to access are removed,
inequalities persist at the level of skills, and at the level of benefits people from different walks
of life are able to extract from using digital media (e.g. Hargittai, 2002; Van Deursen, Helsper,
Eynon & Van Dijk, 2017). Here, the question of who benefits from digitalization in public
libraries should be prominent for both scholars and policymakers concerned with inequality
and cultural participation.
2. Problem Statement
While previous research demonstrates the importance of libraries as reserves of cultural and
digital capital, it also highlights the fact that different types of users will benefit from digital
libraries in different ways. Some digital services provided by public libraries may serve to
reproduce or even increase inequality because they are used primarily by those already
culturally and digitally advantaged, while other digital services may serve a redistributive role,
reducing inequality through being used by those with low levels of digital and cultural capital.
This has implications for cultural policy and the allocation of resources to fund specific
services. To be able to develop adequate policies and allocate resources for different digital
services, it is therefore important to have an evidence-based overview of different social groups
and their diverse uses of digital libraries, combined with an understanding of how these groups
and uses relate to existing forms of social inequality. This is particularly important in the
context of dwindling funding for public services. If the aim is to reduce inequality, which
digital services should be a priority in modern libraries?
To answer such difficult questions, this research builds on debates on cultural class analysis
and the concept of cultural capital, links them to arguments on digital divides and the concept
of digital capital and applies both to the study of the role of public libraries as means of reducing
social inequalities. Empirically, the researchers drew on the English Taking Part Survey dataset
(2016-17), using two-step cluster analysis and a multinomial regression model to explore the
contrasting profiles of contemporary library users. Specifically, researchers addressed the
following three questions:
RQ1: How does the English population use public libraries today, either off- or online, and
what does this tell us about the potential of English public libraries to not only reproduce, but
also redistribute cultural and digital capital?
RQ2: How do different types of contemporary library users differ in terms of age, gender,
ethnicity, and occupational class?
RQ3 How do these groups differ in terms of levels of digital capital, and specifically in terms
of their ability to use digital capital as a ‘bridge’ that enables them to accrue other forms of
3. Literature review
3.1 Cultural capital and digital divides
Developed by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1984), cultural capital is a concept that
has been used to explore the relationship between lifestyles and class structures. Capitals can
be defined as species of interchangeable power of economic, social, or cultural nature which
allow individuals to obtain certain benefits and ultimately can be converted into economic
opportunities. They are accumulated during the life course and define individuals’ chances of
achieving advantages and distinctions within a given context or field (Bourdieu 1984). Cultural
capital refers to the possession of various cultural assets, from knowledge, skills, and
dispositions required to access cultural products (‘embodied’ cultural capital), to educational
qualifications (institutionalized’ cultural capital) and the cultural products themselves (the so-
called as ‘objectified’ cultural capital). Taken together, these cultural assets or forms of cultural
capital serve to demonstrate one’s cultural competences and thereby contribute to one’s social
position and status (Bourdieu 1984).
Recent accounts of class formations have integrated information and communication
technologies (ICTs) into accounts of culture and life trajectories to explore the mechanisms of
generation and reproduction of social advantages through technological means (Yates, Kirby
and Lockley, 2015; Leguina, Arancibia-Carvajal & Widdop, 2017; Van Deursen et al., 2017;
Mihelj, Leguina & Downey, 2019; Leguina and Downey, in press). Such efforts combine the
Bourdieusian framework with the ‘digital divide’ approach. The latter offers a way to
understand the unequal distribution of digital access and use across society, arising from
inequalities in material access to technology (first digital divide), unequal skills or knowledge
(second digital divide), and inequalities in accumulated benefits derived from the use of digital
technologies (third digital divide) (DiMaggio & Hargittai, 2001; DiMaggio, Hargittai, Celeste
& Shafer, 2004; Mihelj et al., 2019). Yet, existing research on the interaction between digital
divides and cultural capital remains very limited, particularly with regards to those cultural
activities (such as use of public libraries) that were established long before the proliferation of
digital technologies (see also Leguina et al., 2017).
The concept of ‘digital capital’ has proved useful to overcoming this scholarly divide. Here,
digital capital is understood as the accumulation of digital competencies and digital
technology (Leguina & Downey, in press: 3). More specifically, digital capital comprises
technological resources and internalized abilities and aptitudes that can be accumulated over
time, transferred across life arenas, and exchanged for social, cultural, and economic benefits.
Of particular importance in this context is the description of digital capital as a ‘bridge capital’
which enables individuals to accumulate capital, or convert one form of capital into another,
via digital means. Specifically, thanks to digital capital individuals can convert online activities
into tangible offline benefits (e.g. a better job, a bigger social network, etc.) that enable further
accumulation of social, cultural or economic capital (Leguina & Downey, in press; Ragnedda
& Ruiu, 2020). Digital capital can therefore be seen as an element that ‘bridges’ offline and
online spheres of activity, by mobilizing digital advantages and disadvantages that accumulate
over time, and then converting or exchanging them for social, cultural and economic benefits
which ultimately serve to reinforce social positions (Bourdieu, 1984; Halford and Savage,
3.2 Public libraries as reserves of cultural and digital capital
The role of contemporary public libraries goes beyond information providers, and their services
evolve based on interaction with their diverse user communities (Strover, 2019; Wang, Huan
and Chen, 2020). Public libraries also contribute to the (re)production of cultural capital in a
variety of ways, and existing evidence confirms that they play an important role in the
accumulation of cultural capital. Several studies operationalize the use of libraries as part of
individuals’ ‘highbrow cultural capital (Bihagen & Katz-Gerro, 2000; Dumais, 2002), based
on a traditional way of understanding libraries as facilitators of ‘highbrow’ cultural
competencies and means of accessing ‘highbrow’ cultural experiences (see also Goulding,
2008; Kraaykamp, 2003; Summers & Buchanan, 2018). These studies show that access to
highbrow culture, including library use, is socially stratified, with individuals in higher social
positions typically using libraries more frequently than those in lower social positions. Gender
and the rural/urban divide play a role as well, with women and inhabitants of big cities using
public libraries more often than men and inhabitants from smaller towns or rural.
Results from previously mentioned studies also suggest that public libraries are at risk of
reproducing traditional hierarchical distinctions and social inequalities and enabling those with
already high levels of cultural capital to maintain and reproduce their social positions. In such
a context, a blanket emphasis on improving ‘democratic access to libraries and other cultural
institutions through digital means can easily end up reproducing, if not deepening, existing
inequalities (see also Mihelj et al., 2019). Indeed, according to some commentators, the push
to make culture more accessible using digital technologies may well be driven by corporate
interests that are ultimately aimed at transforming institutions of public culture into instruments
of capital (Yeo, 2020). Nonetheless, it is important to point out that research on social mobility
and educational attainment suggests that visits to public libraries, alongside other measures of
cultural engagement and socialization such as attendance of museums and galleries and
reading, have a long-lasting positive effects on reading levels and preference for literary books
(Kraaykamp, 2003; Bhatt, 2010), have been linked with higher educational attainment
(Sullivan, 2001; Kaufman & Gabler, 2004; Andersen & Jaeger, 2015) and ultimately have a
positive impact on upward mobility (Scherger & Savage, 2010). There is also plenty of
evidence that libraries can and do contribute to ‘levelling the playing field’ for the
disadvantaged. Reported benefits range from increased community cohesion and social
integration of ethnic minorities and the disabled (Ignatow et al., 2012; Hill, 2013; Khoir, Du,
Davison, & Koronios, 2017) to the benefits of toys and health literature collections for children
and the elderly (Jheng & Sung, 2020; Anna & Harisanty, 2019). This evidence is crucial for
the sector as it justifies continued public support. In this context, it makes sense to think about
libraries as key sites for the reproduction and accumulation of capital, but more importantly
also as sites of redistribution of cultural and social benefits (Goulding, 2008; Wang et al., 2020;
Wood, 2020). In sum, while public libraries are indeed at risk of merely reproducing existing
inequalities, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that they are also capable of decreasing such
inequalities and of enhancing upward mobility.
How does the role of libraries as reserves of cultural capital, and potential vehicles of social
mobility, change as a result of digitalization? Are public libraries now turning into reserves of
both cultural and digital capital? Existing sociological literature on libraries has little to say
about this, a direct result of the more general lack of reflection on the role of communication
technologies in the field. In contrast, research in the field of library and information science
provides important insights into these questions, including information on the changing
patterns of public use of libraries’ digital provisions and broader political and economic
changes affecting the digitalization of libraries. Evidence of the benefits of digital capital
provided by public libraries, although not named as such, is found in existing literature on
digitalization in libraries, which demonstrates the ability of libraries to use digital media as
tools of mobility and inclusion, and as means of fighting information poverty and expanding
digital literacy (e.g. Aabø, 2005; Strover, 2020; Marcella & Chowdhury, 2020).
Key issues examined in this body of work include policy changes (for a review see Jaeger,
Bertot, Thompson, Katz & DeCoster, 2012), and practical experiences with digital media use
among library professionals (e.g., Deodato 2018). Also common are reflections on the
changing institutional role of libraries resulting from digitalization (Joint, 2008, Ashcroft 2011,
Goulding 2012), their growing importance as ‘content aggregators, access managers, and
educators in digital literacy’ (Norman, 2012, 25), the role of libraries in government
surveillance and big data generation (Vaidhyanathan & Bulock, 2014; Gangadharan 2016), and
their evolution into social gathering places that provide access to the digital world (Black &
Pepper, 2012; Nicholson & Petrović, 2018). Also worth noting is that public libraries are, for
some, the only point of access to the Internet (Cohron, 2015) and to education about technology
use (Kinney, 2010; Cranco, 2016; Wyatt, Mcquire & Butt, 2018). Finally, research on the
unintended consequences of the growing reliance on volunteers in public libraries is important
here as well (Casselden & Dawson, 2019) as such volunteers are typically less well equipped
to support the digitalization effort.
This body of work highlights the wide range of digital services and uses that take place in the
context of public libraries. These different services and uses are typically directed at rather
different groups of users, with different levels of cultural and digital capital. For instance, while
some users will primarily rely on remote digital access to e-books, others will visit libraries to
gain access to internet or digital devices or to improve their digital skills. To establish a
sufficiently nuanced understanding of the interaction between digital and cultural capital in
libraries it is important to keep this diversity of uses and user groups in mind. To this end, it is
useful to think of libraries as reserves of two key dimensions of digital capital, namely digital
access (equipment, connectivity, daily and historic time online) and digital competence
(literacy, communication, content creation, safety and problem solving) (Ragnedda & Ruiu,
2020; Leguina and Downey, 2021). These two types of digital capital are of particular interest
for this research, as they are central to libraries’ role as ‘redistributors’ of digital capital,
demonstrating their importance in transforming online activities into tangible offline benefits.
3.3 The English patient? Library policy in the context of austerity and digitalization
The rise of digital media is only one among several major changes English libraries have
experienced in the past two decades. UK government austerity policies, implemented in the
aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, have led to a significant reduction in library budgets
(since then the responsibility of local authorities), which in turn resulted in shorter opening
hours, reductions in paid staff, and a growing dependence on volunteers (Casselden, Pickard,
Walton & McLeod, 2019; Robertson & MacMenemy, 2020). Library closures were common
as well; between 2010 and 2017 nearly 800 libraries across England have closed (Flood, 2019).
It is therefore not a surprise that between 2006 and 2017, total library issues declined by 38%,
and total visits by 28% (O’Bryan, 2018). The largest declines were found among females and
white ethnic groups as well as those living in the least deprived areas, a female, white middle-
class flight from the ‘cathedrals of public knowledge’ (DCMS, 2016). Given this structural
decline in library visits and issues over the last two decades, which is a consequence of a
‘hollowed out’ sector (Robertson & MacMenemy, 2020), it is no wonder that there have been
calls to reverse funding cutbacks and/or to modernize library services through, for example, a
digitalization strategy.
The British government has been seeking to tackle difficulties faced by the sector together with
the Local Government Association. In 2014, the Libraries Taskforce was set up with the
purpose of providing leadership to the sector and reinvigorating the public library service
(DCMS, 2016). According to the analysis of Public Libraries statistics, available through the
Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accounting (CIPFA), one of the possible arguments
for the sustained decline in library use lies in the funding cuts initiated by the Conservative-
Liberal coalition government in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and the consequent
failure to modernise the sector (O’Bryan, 2018). The analysis also emphasises the disruptive
effects of the shift to digital, combined with the slow embrace of electronic books and
resistance from publishers who have been reticent about libraries stocking e-books.
Digitalization seems to be a double-edged sword, cited as both one of the causes of the decline
of public libraries, and as an instrument that can help libraries reconnect with their audiences
in new ways.
A report commissioned by the Society of Chief Librarians and funded by Arts Council England
boldly argues that ‘a standards-based digital platform is the only viable technology for realizing
recent strategic goals articulated by leaders for England’s public libraries’ (Bibliocommons,
2015, 2). In essence, libraries must ‘modernise’ or ‘digitise’ to remain relevant to relatively
affluent citizens who are supposedly deserting public libraries: ‘The success of this work
depends upon the library’s continuing ability to serve those who choose the library in order to
serve those who need the library. Libraries must not become soup kitchens for the written word
stigmatized spaces used only by those with no alternative,’ (2015, 10). Without investing in
digital services for the relatively affluent, libraries will not be able, it is claimed, to meet the
needs of the poor, presumably because support for public funding from the middle class will
The English strategy for libraries from 2016 to 2021 clearly reflects these multiple demands
put on libraries (Libraries Taskforce, 2016). On the one hand, part of this strategy is to create
a single national digital presence for library users where citizens will be able to access libraries
remotely irrespective of physical opening times (Peachey & Ashley, 2017). On the other hand,
the strategy document notes that a significant proportion of English households still lacks
internet access (around 11% at the time) and highlights the importance of the provision of
computers, wired and WiFi internet access, and support and training in their use (Libraries
Taskforce, 2016, 25). To put it differently, existing debates on the state and future of public
libraries in England highlight the importance of keeping in mind the diversity of services, users
and uses, as well as different dimensions of digitalization, from remote access to on-site digital
skills training and support. In the analysis that follows, the researchers look at a broad array of
digital services provided by English public libraries, to assess the relative capacity of these
services to increase digital and cultural capital and thereby reduce inequalities.
4. Methodology
4.1 Data
The English Taking Part Survey (TPS) is an annual face-to-face survey that covers a
representative sample of the country’s population aged 16 or above (DCMS, 2018). As the
most important barometer of cultural engagement in England, the TPS questionnaire contains
a broad range of fixed and rotating questions on cultural engagement that cover mainly fine
arts, performing arts, sports, leisure and free time usage, and a growing variety of media and
digital activities. The analysis presented here focuses on participation in libraries, drawing on
data from 2016/17 (wave 12). The relevant survey questions, only available to date in wave 12,
include eighteen dichotomic indicators for library usage (yes/no) in the last twelve months,
ranging from borrowing books to use of log in details to access to journals outside the library
Analysis also considers the following demographic variables: sex (male/female), age in years
(16-29/30-59/60 or more), ethnicity (white/non-white), long term illness (yes/no), presence of
children in household (yes/no), region (North/Midlands/South/East) and NS-SEC occupational
class (higher managerial, administrative and professional occupations/intermediate/semi-
routine and routine occupations/student/never worked and long-term unemployed/other or non-
classified). Although TPS does not include enough information to operationalize digital capital
in a more comprehensive way, researchers used Internet access at home (including mobile
devices) as an indicator of digital access, and thereby an indicator of the first digital divide. For
cultural capital, available information focused on its institutionalised form, measured through
educational attainment (university degree/secondary education/primary education/other or no
information). The total sample size for Wave 12 of TPS was 9,352 (2016/17), but analysis
concentrates on 3,460 respondents that used public libraries at least once during the last twelve
4.2 Methods
To answer RQ1, the first part of the analysis looks at trends in physical visits of libraries and
use of library websites by looking in more detail at how exactly library websites are used. From
here it is possible to identify the key types of library users and then examine to what extent
physical and digital cultural offerings provided by libraries are unequally distributed. For this
a two-step cluster analysis was performed. Cluster analysis is a family of exploratory statistical
procedures that classify individuals in a finite number of groups based on their similitude or
‘distance’ (Kaufman & Rousseeuw, 1990). The exploratory nature of cluster analysis
algorithms allow data to reveal the ‘natural’ grouping of individuals based on observed patterns
and trends. The two-step cluster procedure (SPSS, 2001) was chosen due to its desirable
characteristics, particularly in terms of flexibility to handle categorical variables and its
suitability for the analysis of larger datasets. Optimal number of groups is determined by
minimization of Schwarz Bayesian Criterion, which evaluates the effectiveness of the
procedure to split the sample across all possible solutions, and adequate cluster silhouette
values, which ensures cohesion and separation within and between groups. The number of
clusters and cluster membership has been validated using alternative procedures to classify
The full list of library uses covered in the questionnaire includes the following: Borrow or browse books; Borrow or browse other physical
resources in the library, such as newspapers, music CDs, DVDs, audiobooks; Access online resources; Use the free WiFi; Use the computer
or printing facilities; Get help to apply for a job online; Get help to apply for a government service online; Improve your digital skills (e.g.
through attending a training session); Take your / another child to an event (e.g. Rhyme Time, Chatterbooks, coding class); Take part in an
event related to reading and books such as a reading group or author visit; Take part in an event related to another topic (e.g. an arts,
health or business-related event); Accessed a library service via the internet, telephone, fax or letter (for example ordering or renewing
books); Viewed a library catalogue or database online (without visiting the library); Borrowed an electronic resource without visiting the
library (for example e-books, e-audio, e-magazines, or e-journals; Used my library log in details to access other online services (e.g.
journals or publications); Received an outreach service such as the home delivery of books; Attended a library event that did not take
place in a library building; Viewed library website for information relating to location of and / or opening hours of libraries.
dichotomic variables (multiple correspondence analysis and hierarchical cluster) and similar
results were found.
To address RQ2 and RQ3, demographic and capital composition of library users were used as
predictors of cluster belonging via multinomial logistic regression (Agresti, 2013). This is a
statistical model, part of the family of generalized linear models that is suitable for cases when
the dependent variable takes the form of a categorical variable of three or more categories. The
relevant statistical procedure, often considered an extension of binomial logistic regression,
estimates the log odds (the logarithm transformation of the likelihood an individual belongs to
a specific group) as a linear combination of the independent variables. In this study, the
multinomial regression analysis is used to assess whether cluster belonging (outcome from the
two-step cluster analysis) is predicted by library users’ demographic information and
possession of cultural and digital capital. The latter are categorical variables of two or more
5. Findings
Fig. 1 summarizes data from 2016/17, which features the full set of indicators for libraries and
offers in-depth insight into a range of potential benefits resulting from (digital) library use.
Although most of the subsample of library users (n=3,460) still use libraries to borrow or
browse books, use of digital facilities provided in-house is also among popular activities. Some
of these uses such as borrowing books, taking children to library events or attendance to reading
events, can be seen as indication of cultural capital. In contrast, use of PC, printing facilities
and free WiFi can be seen as measures of digital capital. Finally, remote access to libraries and
borrowing electronic resources combine both digital and cultural capital.
The key question, of course, is who uses these different services, and specifically how those
accessing various services differ in demographic terms. Results from the two-step cluster
analysis revealed four key groups of users, which differ significantly in their use of libraries:
‘Traditional’, ‘Active’, ‘Family’ and ‘Tech Access’. As shown in Fig. 2, book borrowing
remains an important form of engagement with libraries. In fact, 27.5% of library users only
use libraries in this way, enough to make them a class on its own. This group is labelled
‘Traditional’ due to their exclusive engagement with libraries as a book reserve. In contrast,
the ‘Active’ users (19.3%) tend to engage with libraries in multiple ways and in high volume.
Users in this group are also particularly distinguishable by their emphasis on remote access to
libraries. The next two groups have more specific forms of engagement. ‘Family’ (28.8%),
besides borrowing books and other audio-visual material (newspapers, music CDs, DVDs,
audiobooks), is also slightly more inclined to engage in library events. But this group also
reveals below average engagement with digital facilities provided by libraries. Finally, the
‘Tech Access’ group (24.4%) concentrates most of its participation around use of hardware
and online services provided on site.
Multinomial regression model was used to assess cluster membership of the four groups of
users. The purpose of the analysis was to identify to what extent differences in demographics
and (cultural and digital) capital distribution predicts cluster membership. Estimated odds
ratios, their standard errors and significance levels are shown in Table 1 and reveal significant
differences across the four groups. Model shows that all variables, except ethnicity and long-
time illness, have statistically significant effects. Women are less likely to be part of tech
access group than the reference category (traditional). Younger people are more likely to
belong to active or tech access clusters. These two groups are also less likely to have
children in the household than those in the traditional cluster (reference category). In terms
of region of residence, estimated coefficients show one significant coefficient: family cluster
members are less likely to live in the north of England than elsewhere. Occupational class is
broadly consistent with expectations, particularly highlighting that tech access group
members are less likely to come from the upper class and active group members are more
likely to be students.
This typology of library users provides valuable insights into how different communities might
benefit from libraries and use them to accumulate different capitals. Results from the
multinomial regression show that ‘active group users are more likely to have high levels of
cultural and digital capital, highlighting their more privileged backgrounds. This is confirmed
by their varied and frequent use of library services, as well as the strongest significant
coefficient for degree level and possession of internet connection(s) at home from Table 1. A
similar situation is observed within the ‘family group. Here, strong and significant coefficient
for digital capital, alongside an above average use of library remote access, reveals digital
advantages. Traditional and ‘tech access users are the ones that can benefit most from
libraries as reservoirs of both cultural and digital capitals. Both display lower rates of Internet
access than non-significant coefficients for digital capital suggest, and tech access also has
the lowest levels of cultural capital.
Table 2 complements the analysis by providing a more detailed account of library attendance
for each user profile. As revealed earlier, ‘active’ group users have high levels of cultural and
digital capital and are from more privileged backgrounds. This is consistent with their frequent
use of library services. A similar situation is observed within the ‘family’ group, but with less
emphasis on digital engagement. Here children seem to be the key. This is the group that uses
libraries as a means of transmission of cultural and digital capital and as a source of
socialization. The ‘traditional’ group, older than the rest, primarily benefits from cultural
capital provision provided by libraries, and the ‘tech access’ from digital capital provision.
Both display the least frequent public library usage, an indication of more reactive usage in
circumstances when information and/or access to digital resources are needed.
6. Discussion
This research explored how the English population uses public libraries today (RQ1) and how
different types of library users differ in terms of age, gender, ethnicity and occupational class
(RQ2), as well as basic measures of cultural and digital capital (RQ3). At an exploratory level,
the analysis shows that there are distinct user groups, which differ demographically and also
possess different degrees of cultural and digital capital.
First, it is important to notice that despite urgent calls for modernization and digitalization of
public libraries (Libraries Taskforce, 2016), the number one priority for all four groups of
library users is access to (print) books. This result confirms the continued importance of
traditional, ‘analogue’ services provided by public libraries (e.g., Summers & Buchanan, 2018)
which persists despite the decline in library issues and visits registered between 2006 and 2017
(O’Bryan, 2018). Indeed, it could be argued that the continued importance of libraries as points
of access to physical books suggests that the decline in library issues and visits was not simply
a reflection of dwindling demand for traditional library services but was to an important extent
driven by library closures, shortened opening hours, and reductions in paid staff, all resulting
from budget cuts and opening hours.
Second, the four groups differ considerably in their use of digital services provided by libraries.
While the ‘traditional’ group, older than the rest, may only benefit from public libraries in terms
of cultural capital via book borrowings, ‘active’ group members display above average
engagement across most library services, reflecting higher engagement with cultural and digital
capital provisions (Mihelj et al., 2019; Leguina & Downey, in press). The ‘family’ cluster
combines activities related with higher cultural capital, particularly in terms of engagement
with children (Jheng & Sung, 2020, Robertson & McMenemy, 2020), with a slightly lower
engagement with digital services. ‘Tech access’ has low levels of participation in activities
oriented towards more traditional forms of cultural capital provided by libraries but has the
most potential to benefit from ICT facilities and assistance to access online services such as
job applications and government services (Aabø, 2005; Cohron, 2015; Marcella & Chowdhury,
2020; Strover, 2020).
Third, it should be highlighted that rates of access to online services such as job applications
and government service among members of the ‘tech access’ group are not considerably higher
than those for ‘active’ individuals. This suggests that members of the tech access’ group may
struggle to access services using certain devices, and they might also not possess the right skills
and knowledge to navigate and benefit from increasingly digitalized services (see also
Robinson, 2009, 2011; Leguina & Downey, in press). In contrast, ‘active’ group members,
while not the community of users that need these services the most, are most likely best
equipped to recognize the benefits of digital libraries as well as convert library resources into
social advantages. To put it differently, while the ‘active’ group, relatively well-endowed with
both digital and capital, is able to use advanced digital services to access cultural resources
without much help, the ‘tech access’ group may well need support from library staff not only
to access digital technology as such, but also to use this technology effectively as means of
accumulating other forms of resources or capital (see also Strover, 2019).
Taken together, these results confirm that English public libraries can help bridge the digital
divide and act as reservoirs of digital capital at the same time as catering for equally important
cultural and social services. Crucial is the fact that the three least popular forms of access (help
with online job applications, government services and improved digital skills) are the ones
potentially holding most value for disadvantaged library users, as they involve the mobilization
of digital capital for the purpose of improving one’s economic, social, or cultural capital along
the lines suggested by Ragnedda (2020) and Leguina & Downey (in press). Worryingly, this is
another area where austerity measures in English libraries may have hit hardest at those in
greatest need. Namely, a growing number of libraries relies on volunteers who are not
adequately trained to provide support with digital technology and the soft skills needed to
convert digital capital into cultural capital (Casselden & Dawson, 2019).
To sum up, when thinking about the role of public libraries it is essential to avoid focusing on
a single community of users, and instead ask how libraries can lead to greater equality through
producing differential cultural and social benefits for different groups of users (Summers &
Buchanan, 2018). In a context of rising socioeconomic inequalities and further service
constrains, the balance between provision of a varied cultural offering and digital services for
the socially advantaged and access to critical services and acquisition of relevant skills for those
in need, is more important than ever. This study offers a first step towards theorizing and
explaining the impact of new communication technologies on the social and cultural
significance of public libraries for its users. It is here where the value of a digital and cultural
capital perspective becomes most clearly apparent. Capitals represent power and inequality not
only as material resources, but also as culturally and socially intangible assets, which actively
contribute to shaping individuals’ perceptions of the social world and reproduce inequalities in
everyday life.
That said, some limitations should be acknowledged. First, available data set has limited
capacity to capture the full range of cultural, social and digital services provided by
contemporary libraries, particularly those associated with mobile and smart devices. Second,
researchers’ inquiry was limited to a single country, and although many of the challenges
encountered by public libraries in England will be familiar elsewhere, one would expect that
libraries in other countries will differ somewhat in both their approach to digitalization and in
the specific social uses of library services. Thirdly, operationalizations of digital and cultural
capital are limited by the information available by the TPS. Greater detail on historic
accumulation and transferability of capitals is necessary. This means that the typology of
library users developed in our study may not be directly applicable to other environments.
7. Conclusions
Public libraries in the UK and elsewhere are under pressure because of both funding cutbacks
and digitalization. In reimagining the role of public libraries in the future and allocating
resources in the present, policymakers should take account of the existence of different groups
of users and the role that libraries play in both reinforcing and tackling various forms of
inequality, economic, cultural and digital. While this study focused on public libraries in
England, researchers suspect that cultural policymakers in many countries face similar
dilemmas, and hence may benefit from results presented here. The study also made a theoretical
contribution to both the sociology of consumption and the sociology of media through
overcoming the tendency for different groups of scholars to provide parallel analyses of cultural
capital, on the one hand, and the digital divide, on the other, with little dialogue between these
two strands of analysis. Cultural and digital capital need to be analysed together as potentially
complementary forms of capital in societies where a large majority engage with digital
technology in their everyday lives to use and benefit from cultural resources.
Issues examined here raise several additional questions that are worth exploring in future
research. With reference to public libraries, more research is needed into the interaction of
different forms of digital and cultural capital over time, with the aim of assessing whether
different library uses lead to desired results in terms of social mobility and reduced inequality.
Also important is to pay attention to the rapidly changing technological environment, including
faster networks and the growing reliance on mobile devices to access a wide range services,
and the extent to which this may affect the ability of library to use digitalization effectively to
tackle inequality. It is quite possible that this changing environment will lead to new uses of
digital library provision, hence leading to a different set of ideal-typical library users compared
to the ones identified in this article. Future research should also strive to understand the needs
of those who are currently not using public libraries, identify obstacles to use and ways in
which they could benefit from active engagement with libraries. Finally, the interaction
between digital and cultural capital is of course not limited only to public libraries, and
researchers hope this work will inspire other scholars to undertake similar research by adopting
key ideas from cultural class analysis to examine other cultural institutions, whether privately
or publicly funded.
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Figure 1. Detailed library usage breakdown for 2016/17 Taking Part Survey.
Figure 2. Types of library uses among the four identified clusters.
Table 1. Multinomial regression of library users according to sociodemographics and capital
possession (reference category: traditional).
Exp(B) (Standard error)
Tech access
Sex (ref male)
Age (ref 30-59)
Ethnicity (ref white)
Illness, disability or
infirmity (ref no)
Children in household (ref
Region (ref London)
Occupational class (ref
Higher managerial,
administrative and
professional occupations
Semi-routine and routine
Never worked and long-
term unemployed/
no info
Cultural capital:
Education (ref secondary)
Other/no info
Digital capital: Internet
connection at home (ref
Note: *Significant at p=.05. **Significant at p=.01. ***Significant at p=.001. Log likelihood =
5,015.341 Pseudo-R^2 = 0.207 (Nagelkerke), 0.194 (Cox and Snell).
Table 2. Frequency of library usage by user
At least once a
Less than once
a week, at least
once a month
Less than once
a month but at
least 3-4 times
a year
Twice in the
last 12 months
Once in the
last 12 months
(or less)
Tech access
... They detected the lines of research that were related to the Internet, education, visuals, computer programs, learning, digital media literacy, and educational technology, contributing to academic, scientific, and institutional debate to enhance decision-making based on existing information (González-Zamar et al. 2020). Leguina et al. (2021) studied the interaction between cultural capital and digital capital in public libraries. They explored a comparative profile of contemporary library users by analyzing a wide range of data sets from the UK participation Survey (2016-17) using two-step cluster analysis and multiple regression models. ...
... They explored a comparative profile of contemporary library users by analyzing a wide range of data sets from the UK participation Survey (2016-17) using two-step cluster analysis and multiple regression models. They identified four distinct user groups: Traditional, Active, Family, and Tech Access, which possessed different degrees of cultural and digital capital, had different demographic profiles, and benefited from digitalized libraries in different ways (Leguina et al. 2021). ...
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