«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 ...»
• A significant number of people (19 million or 25 percent of all public access users) logged on at their public library for commercial needs or to manage their personal finances.
Recommendations The U.S. IMPACT Study provides compelling evidence for the way in which one public library service—free computer and Internet access—helps address a wide range of needs for residents in communities large and small. This report demonstrates that libraries have been a silent partner in workforce 8 | Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries development, educational achievement, health information delivery, and bringing government services to citizens. It also documents the significant public benefit of investments in library technology and calls on policy makers to develop and implement coordinated strategies to more fully integrate libraries’ roles in achieving positive public outcomes. The following recommendations highlight strategies that policy makers could help develop, fund, and implement to achieve positive policy outcomes. With library resources already stretched, new policies and mandates should be supported with both new funding and partnerships.
State and local government should include libraries in comprehensive broadband deployment and adoption strategies. The national broadband plan provides an important framework for communities hoping to extend broadband access to all residents. State and local broadband strategies should account for the varied ways that libraries address the technology needs of many different groups in their community, including people who may have access but are in need of the value-added resources and services that libraries provide.
Business and government agencies should engage libraries in economic and workforce development strategies. Libraries are a very effective way to reach job seekers and connect them to employment support services. Partnerships between libraries, workforce development, and small business development agencies can strengthen the impact of local economic development efforts by building broader and more seamless workforce information networks for the public.
State and local education reform initiatives should partner with and invest in public libraries to broaden educational opportunities for K–12 students and adults. Strategic partnerships between schools, nongovernmental organizations, and libraries can help build stronger educational interventions by marshalling the resources and capabilities of a variety of community learning institutions toward a common set of educational goals.
Public and private health officials and organizations should support the public library as a partner in disseminating health and wellness information and as a resource for future health communications research. The report provides evidence that many people are turning to their local library as a resource when looking for health information and for making important decisions about their own health and wellness behaviors. Libraries provide access to a health information seeking public that can be leveraged for targeted health and wellness campaigns. Hospitals, doctors, public health agencies, insurance companies, and other health care providers should work with and invest in Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries | 9 libraries to build a stronger health communications network in urban and rural communities across the country.
Federal, state, and local government agencies should support libraries as points of access for eGovernment services. Government agencies are moving a tremendous amount of information onto the Internet. Given the high use of public library technologies, particularly among vulnerable populations, communication strategies developed with public libraries in advance of major Internet-based initiatives could lessen the burden on local libraries and further the goals of sponsoring agencies by reaching the broadest possible audience.
The reliance on the public library as an emergency backup to other government and social agencies also should be considered in distributing emergency aid.
Support technology services that build communities. Respondents of all ages reported that library technologies helped them connect with family (locally and around the globe), keep up with current events, and identify volunteer opportunities. New technology services in libraries have preserved the role of libraries as the information commons in the 21st century. Local civic and government organizations should consider ways to promote and support this vital role that libraries continue to play in the information age.
Conclusion The wiring of public libraries has transformed one of the nation’s most established community resources into a critical digital hub, where patrons can compete more effectively for jobs, improve their health, find key government services, and manage their finances. Computer and Internet access allow librarians to go beyond library stacks to connect patrons to all of the resources, services, and tools available online. In a world increasingly defined by technology, the public library is one of the widest bridges to the Internet and computers, not only for those who cannot afford their own connection, but for those who find the library is an easier, faster, friendlier, or more effective way to use these tools.
Over the years, libraries have made significant investments to keep pace with digital developments, but surging demand quickly wears out equipment, taps available bandwidth, and strains library resources. As resources and services increasingly migrate online and devour greater bandwidth, more patrons will need access to fully participate in the digital age. That means libraries will require more resources, not less, to meet this growing need.
Unfortunately, some states are now cutting library budgets, which puts quality access in jeopardy. The situation is worsening because the lingering recession 10 | Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries leads state and local governments to cut library funding and libraries to cut hours, services, and staff—two developments that will only lengthen the growing lines of those waiting to use library computers.
This groundbreaking research shows people of all types not only use computers and Internet lines at the public library, but they rely on this access. The findings signal this is a moment when federal, state, and local governments should invest more, not less, in the computing capacity of the nation’s libraries to help advance a wide range of policy goals.
Methodology This study’s findings were based on nearly 50,000 completed surveys, including 3176 from a national telephone survey and 44,881 web survey responses from patrons of over 400 public libraries across the country. Another 319 interviews were conducted with users, non-users, staff, administrators, funding agencies, and other community agencies in four case study sites around the country (Baltimore, Maryland; Fayetteville, Arkansas; Marshalltown, Iowa; and Oakland, California) to provide greater depth to the findings.
In addition to demographic characteristics and general use patterns, researchers looked at eight different ways people use Internet and computer resources at libraries in their daily lives: education, employment and entrepreneurship, health and wellness, accessing government and legal services and information, participating in community life, managing household finances, and building and maintaining social connections.
Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries | 11 Introduction Computer technology has become ubiquitous in American society. Without access to computers and the Internet, people are excluded from many jobs, government services, educational opportunities, and social networks. To help ensure all Americans can participate in digital culture, public libraries have been at the forefront of mobilizing resources to support free access to technology.
Through partnerships with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), and advocacy in their own communities, virtually all public library systems in the United States have public computers and Internet access, with an average of seven terminals available for every 10,000 residents (Figure 1). These resources are well used: in 2007, libraries recorded 357 million sessions on public access computer terminals (Henderson et al. 2009).
Figure 1: Distribution of library outlets and density of public access computer terminals by state Computer terminals are only the most visible manifestation of a vast public information infrastructure in U.S. public libraries that includes Internet access, digital books, audio recordings, images, databases, electronic reference services, and the knowledgeable and dedicated staff who maintain these 12 | Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries resources and help patrons navigate the digital universe. In 2008, two out of three Americans accessed electronic resources through a public library computer or website, and one out of three used a public library computer or wireless network to access the Internet.
Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries is the first installment of a two-part report representing the findings from four public library case studies, a national telephone survey, and a web survey administered through 400 U.S. public libraries. This report focuses on the characteristics of public access computer and Internet users and the types of activities and outcomes they reported through surveys and interviews.
The second report will address library operational and policy issues and how they affect the outcomes of public access computing use.
The next section in this report (Section 2) is a review of the role of libraries in providing access to technology and the Internet to people who have been excluded from full participation in digital culture. As technology extends into every facet of daily life, being on the wrong side of the digital divide, even temporarily, exacts an ever increasing toll on well-being. Using the research methods described in Section 3, the U.S. IMPACT Study focused on the contribution public access technology makes toward bridging the divide and providing the means for accomplishing important tasks.
Using data from the surveys and stories from public access technology users, librarians, and community stakeholders, Section 4 discusses the reasons users visit public libraries, followed by an examination in Section 5 of how those users take advantage of the technology resources provided by those libraries. In Section 6, a more in-depth look at the characteristics of the users of public library Internet services is provided.
Section 7 provides a detailed discussion of types of uses and users in the areas of pursuing educational goals, job seeking and employment-related activities, learning about health and wellness, accessing government information and services, participating in community life, managing finances, and building and maintaining social connections. Section 8 discusses policy recommendations and Section 9 discusses directions for future research.
The goal of the U.S. IMPACT Study is to help librarians and library staff, policy makers, community stakeholders, and the public understand who the users of public library computers and Internet connections are and how the availability of this important public resource benefits individuals, families, and communities. The results are provocative, sometimes surprising, and touch virtually every corner of American life.
Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries | 13 Background This study is groundbreaking in the sense that it is the first large-scale generalizable investigation of the characteristics of patrons who use the computers and Internet access in public libraries and examines how they make use of these resources. The research builds on previous studies that have examined the digital divide, or the effect of lack of access to the Internet, and how libraries help bridge the gap for underserved populations. It also expands on and updates previous research concerned with how patrons use public library technology resources and services.
By reaching large numbers of users, asking more detailed questions about instrumental tasks performed using library computers, as well as looking for the outcomes of use, the U.S. IMPACT Study offers a more complete depiction than has previously been available of the extent of public library technology use and the benefits of access to technology in public libraries to individuals, families, and communities. The following brief overview of some of the major results from previous studies will help set the context for the findings from the present work.
2.1 The Digital Divide The idea of a digital divide that separated information “haves and have-nots” was introduced by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s (USDC) National Telecommunications and Infrastructure Administration (NTIA) in a series of reports entitled Falling Through the Net. These reports, released from 1995– 2000, extend the concept of universal service from telephone service to
computer and Internet access: