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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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Among our star student helpers are Elizabeth Mitchell, Melody Clark, Rebecca Blakewood, and Christine Lee, each of whom made unique and critical contributions to the project. Also participating in fieldwork and other support activities were Jennie Abrahamson, Ellie Bair, David Lee Bassett, Jack Baur, Amber Duginske, Audrey Kentor, Sherry Edwards, Melissa Mather, Jordan McOwen, Liz Moffat, Cadi Russell-Sauve, Alice Tsoi, Kathy Weigert, Seung-yon Yu, and Wei-Chih (Vicki) Chen. Finally, we want to acknowledge the contribution of Jan Boyd and the Graduate Assistant Crew at the University of Washington Information School for their background research and responsiveness to the needs of the project.

Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries | vii viii | Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries Executive Summary Over the past decade and a half, free access to computers and the Internet in U.S. public libraries evolved from a rare commodity into a core service. Now, people from all walks of life rely on this service every day to look for jobs, find health care, and read the latest news. As the nation struggled through a historic recession, nearly one-third of the U.S. population over the age of 14 used library Internet computers and those in poverty relied on these resources even more.

This study provides the first large-scale investigation of the ways library patrons use this service, why they use it, and how it affects their lives. A national telephone survey, nearly 45,000 online surveys at public libraries, and hundreds of interviews reveal the central role modern libraries play in a digital society.

The library’s role as a technology resource and training center has exploded since 1996, when only 28 percent of libraries offered visitors access to the Internet. Today, almost all public library branches offer visitors free access to computers and the Internet, thanks to a sustained effort by federal, state, and local governments; private philanthropy; and the work of librarians. Until now, though, there has been no systematic study that provided a national picture of how people use this important community resource.

Internet access is now one of the most sought after public library services, and it is used by nearly half of all visitors. Over the past year, 45 percent of the 169 million visitors to public libraries connected to the Internet using a library computer or wireless network during their visit, even though more than threequarters of these people had Internet access at home, work, or elsewhere. The widespread use of these services by people of varying age, income, and experience is an indication of the unique role that public libraries play in the evolving digital landscape. Public libraries stand out as one of the few community institutions that can address the computing and information needs of all kinds of users, from seniors who have never touched a keyboard to young entrepreneurs launching a new eBusinesses strategy.

Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries | 1 Chart 1: Library users and public library access users as a percentage of the U.S. population 14 years and older Libraries offer a technological lifeline to children and families in need.

Although many different types of residents use public library computer and Internet services, libraries appear to be particularly effective in addressing the needs of families who still lack access elsewhere. But for libraries, millions of Americans would not have reliable Internet access in a digital age when a connection is often needed to complete school assignments, apply for jobs, or secure government services. Overall, 44 percent of people in households living below the federal poverty line ($22,000 a year for a family of four) used public library computers and Internet access. Among young adults (14–24 years of age) in households below the federal poverty line, 61 percent used public library computers and Internet for educational purposes. Among seniors (65 and older) living in poverty, 54 percent used public library computers for health or wellness needs.

People of all ages, incomes, races, and levels of education go to the library for Internet access, whether they have a connection at home or not. Users turned to computers at the public library for a wide range of reasons, whether it was because they did not have access elsewhere, needed faster Internet speed, wanted technical help from a librarian, competed for access to a computer at home, or simply wanted to work somewhere more peaceful and inviting than a crowded coffee shop or a hectic unemployment office.

2 | Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries The chart below displays the different age categories of public access users, as a percentage of all users. Overall, youth (between 14 and 24 years old) make up a quarter of all users. However, the distribution is not heavily skewed toward youth. There is a strong representation of users from youth to seniors. The second and third largest groupings of users are people in their middle years (45–

54) and seniors older than 65, respectively.

Chart 2: Public library Internet users by age as a percentage of all users

Technology draws teens to the library. Young adults were among the most active, with nearly half of the nation‘s 14 to 18 year olds (an estimated 11.8 million users) reporting they used a library computer during the last year, and one quarter did so once a week or more. One of the most common uses of library computers reported among these teenagers was to do homework.

Overall, people use library computers to perform both life-changing and routine tasks. Regardless of income, patrons relied on library computers to take fundamental steps in their lives. For example, they used these resources to find work, apply to college, secure government benefits, and learn about critical medical treatments. They also used library computers to connect with family and friends, plan family outings, manage bank accounts, apply for permits, start local clubs, and read the daily newspaper.

In extreme conditions, people turned to public library Internet terminals when they had nowhere else to go. In the wake of natural disasters, such as Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries | 3 Hurricane Katrina, public libraries were often some of the last remaining places where people could search online for housing and FEMA aid.

Patrons use library computers to help others in their community. Apart from addressing their own computing needs, nearly two-thirds of library computer users (63 percent) logged on to help others. Fifty-six percent reported helping friends or family with health matters, 46 percent helped find information on education and learning opportunities, and 37 percent helping friends or family find employment or career information. An estimated 48 million people reported using library computers and Internet access to helping their friends, family, coworkers, and even strangers with a wide range of problems, from resolving tax questions to finding medical equipment.

Public libraries provide access to government agencies that now offer many forms and services online. More than 26 million people used public library computers to get government or legal information or to access government services. Of these, 58 percent downloaded a government forms, such as Social Security paperwork, tax forms, and Medicare enrollment documents. Nearly half of these people wound up submitting a government form using a library computer. When it came to government services, the vast majority who sought help from government officials over a library’s Internet connection (84 percent) reported they received the help they were seeking.

Public libraries are extensions of the nation’s education system. Another important use of computers at public libraries was to further one’s education.

More than 32 million visitors reported using library computers for a variety of educational activities: doing their homework, searching for and applying to GED and graduate programs, completing online courses and tests, and even applying for financial aid. More than half of library patrons who used library computers to seek financial aid received funding.

Librarians enhance the computing and Internet experience. The availability of the Internet at the library coupled with the vast number of online transactions has expanded the librarian’s job and mission, creating a new set of opportunities and service challenges. Librarians have begun serving as informal job coaches, college counselors, test monitors, and technology trainers for the growing number of patrons navigating government aid, the job market, and all levels of education on library computers.

Many librarians have embraced this change as a natural extension of their role as highly trained information guides. They now offer beginning and advanced computer classes, host job training seminars, and provide countless patrons one-on-one computer training. Overall, two-thirds of people who used library 4 | Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries computers received help from library staff or volunteers on computer or wireless network issues.

Key Uses of Library Computers The study explored eight areas where people reported using library computers in the past 12 months: education, employment, health and wellness, accessing government and legal services and information, participating in community life, managing household finances, entrepreneurship, and building and maintaining social connections. The most commonly reported use was social connection, which included connecting with family and friends, finding support for an issue or problem, as well as leisure activities such as watching videos, pursuing hobbies, or maintaining blogs and personal websites.

Library patrons reported using computers and the Internet to address a range of basic needs. The three most common uses were: education (42 percent), employment (40 percent), and health (37 percent). The sections below highlight report statistics for the largest use areas.

Chart 3: Rank of Library Internet Use by Subject Area

Social Connections

• Sixty percent of the public access computer users reported using library resources to maintain person connections. Among these users, 74 percent reported using library computers to connect with friends or family, 66 percent communicated with family or friends in the local community, and 35 percent reported connection with family outside of the United States.

–  –  –


• Forty-two percent of the library computer users (an estimated 32.5 million people) leveraged the library technology resources to help them achieve their educational goals. For example, nearly 37 percent of these users relied on library computers to learn about college degree or certificate programs.

–  –  –

• Twenty-four percent of the education users reported taking online classes or worked on online assignments at the library A principal at an Oakland high school had this to say about the way the local library addressed his student’s needs: “100 percent of our graduates are accepted to college…We work with largely disadvantaged and at-risk youth, and they don’t have computers at home, so they come here to the library. They [the students] get support here. The librarians help them attain the online and print materials they need.

–  –  –

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

• Twenty three percent of the employment users obtained job related training.

A computer user in the Oakland Public Library system summed it up this way:

“You know how the economy is right now. But if you’re just out there filling out applications and walking around, you get so tired and you give up…But in the library, you can do what would take you a week to do in one day.” Health and Wellness

• Overall, 37 percent of library computer users, an estimated 28 million people, focused on health and wellness issues, including learning about medical conditions, finding health care providers, and assessing health insurance options.

–  –  –

• Among the people who reported researching diet and nutrition issues online at the library, 83 percent decided to change their diet.

Among users who searched for exercise and fitness information, 84 percent decided to change their exercise habits.


• For more than 26 million users, libraries serve as the neighborhoodbased extension of a government agency, linking users to government officials, programs, and services.

–  –  –

• Fifty-three percent of these users (over 13 million people) reported that they sought help from specific government official or agency.

Many of these people found it. Approximately 83 percent of the people who looked for help from a specific government official or agency reported that they got the help they needed.

Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries | 7 A Fayetteville Public Library staff member described the support his library provided to hurricane victims: “One story I remember after Hurricane Katrina— we’re only an eleven-hour drive north of New Orleans—the hotels were so full, people just kept coming and there was an older gentleman here. We had him on a research computer and our staff helped him fill out the FEMA paperwork.” Community and Civic Engagement

• Many people (33 percent) used library computers to learn about politics, news, and their community. Among these users, 81 percent reported keeping up with current events, 80 percent reported learning about candidates or issues, and 25 percent reported managing a club or nonprofit organization.

A public library user in Fayetteville, AR: “I watched Obama’s inauguration here…I couldn’t go to Washington but it still felt like a historical moment watching it with the community here.” Personal Finance

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