Study Finds Americans Rely on Library Computers for Internet Access

Social networking, research and job hunting among top-ranked uses, according to University of Washington study.

by / March 29, 2010
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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).

The March 25 release of the report couldn't have been more appropriate because the FCC proposed bringing ultra high-speed 1 gigabit Internet connections to libraries and other public institutions through federal grants and subsidies a few days prior.

Highlights of the report include:

  • 40 percent of library users (about 30 million people) received help with career needs. Among these users, 75 percent reported they searched for a job online, and half of these users filled out an online application or submitted a resume via the Internet.
  • 37 percent focused on health issues. The vast majority of these users (82 percent) logged on to learn about a disease, illness or medical condition. One-third of these users sought out doctors or health-care providers and of these, about half followed up by making appointments for care. 
  • 42 percent received help with educational needs. Among these users, 37 percent (an estimated 12 million students) used their local library computer to do homework for a class. 
  • Library computers linked patrons to their government, communities and civic organizations. Sixty percent of users (43.3 million people) used a library's computer resources to connect with others.

"Policymakers must fully recognize and support the role libraries are playing in work force development, education, health and wellness, and the delivery of government services," said Marsha Semmel, acting director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services. "There is no ambiguity in these numbers -- millions of people see libraries as an essential tool to connect them to information, knowledge and opportunities."

Photo: New Jersey Library Association. Creative Commons Lic.Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic




Karen Wilkinson

Karen is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.

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