In the first report of its kind, researchers have quantified the obvious -- more and more Americans are using the Internet at public libraries to keep up with friends and family, do research and find jobs.

The findings of the report, Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries, also detail the effects the growing demand has on public libraries -- one-third of libraries report inadequate technology and say they lack even minimally adequate Internet connections to meet demand.

The report is based on the first, large-scale study of who uses public computers and Internet access in public libraries, the ways library patrons use the free service, why they use it and how it affects their lives, according to a press release from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, which funded the study along with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The study -- which found that 77 million people, or one-third of Americans older than 14, use public libraries or wireless networks to go online -- was conducted by the University of Washington Information School (UWIS).

"People from all walks of life use library computers to perform routine and life-changing tasks, from e-mailing friends to finding jobs," Michael Crandall, senior lecturer and chairman of the Master of Science in Information Management at UWIS, said in the release. "More than three-quarters of those who used the library Internet connections had access at home, work or elsewhere. Oftentimes they needed a faster connection, assistance from a librarian or temporary access in an emergency."

While Americans of all age groups reported using library computers and the Internet, teens take the cake for highest usage (half the nation's 14- to 18-year-olds reported using a library in the last year, mostly to do homework). Another finding was that low-income adults are more likely to rely on the public library as their sole access to computers and the Internet than any other group (44 percent of people living below the federal poverty line used computers and the Internet at their public libraries).

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Karen Wilkinson  | 

Karen is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.