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«How the American Public Benefits Opportunity for All from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries The U.S. IMPACT Study A research initiative examining the ...»

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How the American Public Benefits

Opportunity for All

from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries

The U.S. IMPACT Study

A research initiative examining the

impact of free access to computers and

the Internet in public libraries.

Principal Authors

Samantha Becker

Michael D. Crandall

Karen E. Fisher

Bo Kinney

Carol Landry

Anita Rocha

This report and its appendices can be downloaded at


Printed March 2010 in the United States of America by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

IMLS will provide visually impaired or learning-disabled individuals with an audio recording of this publication upon request.

Contact Institute of Museum and Library Services 1800 M Street NW, 9th Floor Washington, DC 20036 202-653-IMLS (4657) www.imls.gov Suggested Citation Becker, Samantha, Michael D. Crandall, Karen E. Fisher, Bo Kinney, Carol Landry, and Anita Rocha. (2010). Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries.

(IMLS-2010-RES-01). Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Washington, D.C.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Not available at the time of printing.

Contents Figures



Executive Summary

Key Uses of Library Computers

Social Connections



Health and Wellness


Community and Civic Engagement

Personal Finance



1. Introduction

2. Background

2.1 The Digital Divide

2.2 Libraries Bridge the Digital Divide

2.3 Previous Findings

3. Purpose and Methods

3.1 Purpose

3.2 Theoretical Frameworks

3.3 Research Methods


Case Studies

4. Public Library Visits

5. Accessing Online Library Resources

6. Public Library Internet Users

6.1 Power Users

6.2 Supplemental Users

Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries | i

6.3 Occasional Users

6.4 Getting Technology Help and Training

Individual Help

Formal Training

6.5 Using Library Computers to Help Others

6.6 Importance of Technology Access iniPublic Libraries

7. Uses of Public Library Internet Connections

7.1 Education

7.2 Employment and Entrepreneurship

7.3 Health and Wellness

7.4 Accessing Government and Legal Services and Information............. 116

7.5 Participating in Community Life

7.6 Managing Household Finances

7.7 Building and Maintaining Social Connections

8. Recommendations

9. Future Research

Further Exploration of Activities and Users

Extending the Impact, Helping Others


Further Readings


ii | Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries Figures Figure 1: Distribution of library outlets and density of public access computer terminals by state Figure 2: Change in library use and resources since 1998 Figure 3: Proportion of the population using the Internet in public libraries by mode of access Figure 4: Frequency of public access computer terminal and wireless network use by availability of alternative access to the Internet Figure 5: Type of help received from library staff or volunteers Figure 6: Relationship of helper to help recipient Figure 7: Perceptions of personal and community importance of public library computers and Internet access Figure 8: Ranking of use areas by availability of alternative access users Figure 9: Educational activities by availability of alternative access Figure 10: Types of educational programs applied to by adults Figure 11: Employment activities by availability of alternative access Figure 12: Entrepreneurial activities by availability of alternative access Figure 13: Health and wellness activities by availability of alternative access Figure 14: Government and legal activities by availability of alternative access Figure 15: Top community participation activities by user type Figure 16: Most common financial activities by user type Figure 17: Social activities by availability of alternative access Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries | iii Foreword The rapid adoption of the Internet and computing technologies by all sectors of modern society has made them an indispensable part of our daily work and life.

Access to these resources is taken for granted by public agencies providing services to the community, by those who conduct business and commerce, and by those who use them to stay current on public affairs and in touch with their families and friends on a daily basis. Yet not all individuals have consistent access to these resources—they may be unable to afford them, they may need basic training in how to use them, or they may be displaced from their normal access points.

Fortunately, public libraries have taken on the role as the provider of free public access to the Internet and computers for those who are not able to gain access elsewhere, for whatever reason. Whether it’s a business traveler who needs to check his or her office email when out of town or a homeless person who has no other means for finding social services to meet his or her needs, all Americans can count on the public library in their community for access to the Internet and computers, supported by staff trained to help users be successful in their interactions. This access has also proven to be critical in times of disaster, where libraries may be the only access point still operating that can provide a delivery point for government and social services to those displaced.

To better understand how the provision of free access to the Internet and computers in public libraries is impacting the lives of individuals, families, and communities across the United States, the Institute of Museum and Library Services issued a request for proposals for research targeted at documenting, describing, and analyzing the use and results of this use in libraries throughout the nation. The present report outlines the first part of that research, describing the characteristics of people who use public access computers and Internet connections, the types of use they engage in, and the impact that use has on their own lives, that of their families and friends, and the communities they live in. A second report will follow that examines the effect of library characteristics and policies on public access computing use and impact, as a first step toward helping libraries understand how some of their services may be affecting the overall success of their efforts in providing public access services to their communities.

The results of this study clearly show that public libraries are a key element of America’s digital infrastructure, and that large numbers of people are using libraries’ public access services to meet their needs in health, education, employment, and other important areas. But it also shows that beyond the iv | Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries Internet connections and computers that libraries provide to make this possible, the one-on-one help and other resources librarians, library staff, and volunteers provide to the users is an important element in the success of these services.

We are grateful to the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for their support of this project, to our expert committee for their advice and counsel in shaping the research, to the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies for their assistance and enthusiasm in helping make the fieldwork possible, to the libraries across the country that donated their time and effort to help with data collection, to our research partners who helped with the design and analysis of the data, to the students who worked diligently in the field and the office, and to all the library users who took the time to complete our surveys and interviews.

We hope that this report and its forthcoming companion will be useful for libraries as an aid in informing the public of the value of their free public access services, and that funders and policy makers will find the results of interest as they consider future efforts in this area. Public libraries have become an essential part of the fabric of access to the Internet and computers in this country, and we believe the results of our research show that the impact of these services is well worth the investment of public dollars and resources to make this possible.

Mike Crandall, MLIS Co-principal investigator Karen Fisher, PhD Co-principal investigator Samantha Becker, MLIS, MPA Research manager Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries | v Acknowledgments Large scale projects like the U.S. IMPACT Study are not possible without the help of many individuals and organizations. This work is no exception, and we have had support and guidance from many organizations and individuals throughout the project. Each has contributed in different ways to making the project a success, and we are deeply grateful for the advice and input we have received over the last 18 months. We would like to offer our gratitude to the following organizations and individuals for the part they played in making this project a success.

The Institute of Museum and Library Services was an essential partner throughout the design, execution, and dissemination of the U.S. IMPACT Study, and it is much stronger for their input and participation. We would especially like to thank Carlos Manjarrez, Lesley Langa, Mamie Bittner, and Mary Chute for their guidance during our engagement. The long-term support of public access computing in public libraries by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was the impetus for this study, and we appreciate the time, energy, and flexibility of Jaime Greene and Jill Nishi. Their involvement was essential in making this project a success.

As hosts of our case study visits, the Enoch Pratt Free Library, Fayetteville Public Library, Oakland Public Library, and Marshalltown Public Library, as well as the Mount Vernon City Library (which served as our test site), provided unlimited access to their amazing librarians and information technology staff, board members, and patrons. We are incredibly grateful to the leadership teams and staff at each of these, and especially their directors and following key staff: Carla Hayden, Ann Smith, Pat Costello, Louise Schaper, Shawna Thorup, Carmen Martinez, Diane Satchwell, Carole Winkleblack, and Brian Soneda.

In addition to our case study libraries, we also want to express our deep appreciation to the 400 libraries and their directors and staff who made the U.S.

IMPACT web survey available to patrons through their library computers and websites and for the work of the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies, especially Suzanne Miller and Peggy Rudd of the Research and Statistics Committee and all the state librarians and designees who helped coordinate the web survey. Special thanks also go to the Seattle Public Library and Jennifer Giltrop for allowing us to conduct survey pretesting with their patrons and to Michael Shapiro and Jennifer Peterson from WebJunction who helped us communicate with the participating libraries. The web survey would not have been possible without the creativity and resourcefulness of the University of vi | Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries Washington Social Development Research Group and their extraordinary team of Kimberly Cooperrider, Wilson Chau, Anne McGlynn, and Mary Grassley.

With members from academic, library, and policy communities, the U.S. IMPACT Study Expert Committee was invaluable for advice, guidance, and helpful critiques of our research approach and instruments. The committee included Rick Ashton (Urban Libraries Council), Michael Barndt (Nonprofit Center of Milwaukee), Susan Benton (International City/County Management Association), John Carlo Bertot (Information Use Management and Policy Institute), Cathy Burroughs (National Network of Libraries of Medicine Pacific Northwest Libraries Health Sciences Libraries), Sarah Earl (International Development Research Centre Evaluation Unit), Carla Hayden (Enoch Pratt Free Library), Peggy Rudd (Texas State Library and Archives Commission), Ross Todd (Center for International Scholarship in School Libraries), and Bernard Vavrek (Center for the Study of Rural Librarianship).

We also received invaluable advice and assistance in our research design and analysis from the Urban Institute, particularly Rob Santos and Timothy Triplett, the University of Washington Center for the Studies of Demography and Ecology and the Social Development Research Group, and Glen and Leslie Holt. We are grateful for the advice and expertise of Rachel Garshick Kleit from the University of Washington Evans School of Public Affairs and Sunghee Lee from the University of California, Los Angeles Department of Biostatistics.

Throughout the project we were fortunate to have the enthusiastic participation of many students enrolled at the University of Washington. Student volunteers from the Information School came from the undergraduate Informatics program, as well as from the Master in Library and Information Science and the Master of Science in Information Management Program, and the Information Science PhD program. We also had several students from the Master of Public Administration program at the Evans School of Public Affairs.

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