«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 ...»
The concept of “universal service” in U.S. telecommunications policy has traditionally referred to the goal that all Americans should have access to affordable telephone service. As America has increasingly become an information society, however, that concept has broadened to include access to information services. Now that a considerable portion of today's business, communication, and research takes place on the Internet, access to the computers and networks may be as important as access to traditional telephone services. (USDC 1998, § 1 [“Introduction”]) In the decade since the NTIA reports were released, the extent of day-to-day activities occurring online has grown in every sector, with many activities, such as submitting job applications and resumes, having moved almost entirely to the 14 | Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries Internet, making efforts to ameliorate the digital divide even more urgent for people without access to computers and the Internet. The NTIA reports, along with other studies, demonstrated that the most persistent digital divides separate Americans of differing income and education levels, race, and language (cf. Fairlie 2005; Hoffman and Novak 1998; Lenhart et al. 2000; Liu 1996; Rainie et al. 2005; Spooner, Meredith, and Rainie 2003; U.S. Government Accountability Office 2001). Additional divides exist along lines of region or urbanization, age, and disability (Lenhart et al.
Furthermore, there has not been one single digital divide separating people who do or do not have access to computers and the Internet, but rather a series of divides that attend the introduction of new technology. The new divides exist in terms of available Internet bandwidth, quality of computer equipment, and the ability of users to successfully navigate the Internet to accomplish their goals. As information technologies advance and greater numbers of people join telecommunications networks, the increasingly small number of information “have-nots” will suffer even greater disadvantages (Tongia and Wilson 2007).
Along these lines, a new gap is opening with the rapidly increasing use of mobile devices for connecting to the Internet. In 2008, a panel of technology experts surveyed by the Pew Internet and American Life Project predicted that mobile devices would be the primary means of Internet connection by 2020 (Anderson and Rainie 2008).
Relieving disparities of access to computers and the Internet is important for a number of reasons. Several studies have shown at least moderate benefits to computer access and information technology skills in several categories, including educational advancement, community participation, access to government services, and access to health information (Fairlie 2005; USDC 2000, 2002).
Internet access can also provide economic benefits, both indirectly, through development of marketable technology skills, and directly, through eCommerce.
Goss and Phillips (2002), for example, found that developing Internet skills can positively affect wages, and Morton, Zettelmeyer, and Silva-Risso (2003) observed minorities can gain an economic advantage from shopping online, because the Internet facilitates information search and removes cues to a consumer' willingness to pay and other characteristics that may disadvantage them in negotiating offline. The Internet can also benefit people in everyday life by helping people find information to make major decisions and (potentially) to increase social capital (Horrigan and Rainie 2006).
Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries | 15 Insofar as there are benefits to Internet access in general, these benefits increase with broadband access. For one reason, broadband users participate in more online activities (Horrigan and Rainie 2002). The USDC, in a 2008 report on broadband access in the United States, identified numerous benefits of
By making it possible to access, use, and share information, news, and entertainment with ever increasing speed, broadband technology knits geographically-distant individuals and businesses more closely together, increases productivity, and enriches the quality of life. In so doing, it catalyzes economic growth and job creation that, in turn, provide unparalleled new opportunities for our nation’s citizens. (USDC 2008, i) Whatever the reason, exclusion from access to computers and the Internet can have profound repercussions for those on the wrong side of the digital divide.
The NTIA Falling Through the Net reports emphasize the importance of public access points such as public libraries in providing Internet access, particularly to disadvantaged groups. The 1998 report, for example, concludes, “Because it may take time before these groups become connected at home, it is still essential that schools, libraries, and other community access centers…provide computer access in order to connect significant portions of our population” (USDC 1998, § 4 [“Policy Implications”]).
2.2 Libraries Bridge the Digital Divide Public libraries were identified early on as important players in the task of equalizing computer and Internet access. In 1993, Vice President Al Gore suggested that public libraries could serve as a “safety net” in providing Internet access. In his 1994 State of the Union Address, President Clinton declared his intention “to connect every classroom, every clinic, every library, and every hospital in America to a national information superhighway by the year 2000” (McClure, Bertot, and Zweizig 1994, 1).
Public libraries quickly adopted public computer and Internet access as an extension of their traditional role of providing access to information and information literacy training. Today, virtually all public libraries provide Internet access, and the majority are the only provider of free access in their communities (American Library Association [ALA] 2009; Bertot et al. 2007;
Bertot, McClure, and Jaeger 2008).
Empirical and anecdotal evidence, including that produced by the U.S. IMPACT Study and included in this report, supports the observation that the digitally disadvantaged are heavy users of library computers and that libraries have a 16 | Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries major role in lowering the barriers to digital inclusion. Compared to other public access providers such as employment centers and cybercafés, the library model for public access technology stands out because of the presence of librarians who provide training and assist users in navigating the Internet, thus helping not only to overcome divides of access, but of computer skills and information literacy as well.
In addition to the significant investments made by local jurisdictions, several major external funding initiatives have helped libraries’ investment in public computer and Internet access. Sustaining access requires ongoing expenditures to support software and hardware upgrades, increased bandwidth and connection speeds, continuous staff time and skills training, and maintenance of open hours, all without shifting funding away from the other services or activities that libraries provide and communities depend on.
As seen in Figure 2, from 1998 to 2006 the average number of public access computer terminals in public libraries grew by more than 300 percent. To a lesser extent, this mirrors the growth in library visits and circulation of books and other materials. However, although demand for library computers is high and continues to grow, since 2001 the number of librarians available to assist patrons has not grown at the same pace as the rapid increase in visits, circulation, and availability of public access computers. Further, the number of hours libraries are open has remained flat or in some years fallen. Supporting these observations further, the latest Public Library and Internet Study for the American Library Association (Clark et al., 2009, p. 8), shows that 81 percent of libraries cite insufficient availability of workstations, time limitations are being placed on the use of work stations, and that 63 percent of libraries rely on nonprofessional IT staff or library directors to carry out technical support. (Data pertaining to these themes were collected as part of the U.S. IMPACT Study and will be discussed in a second report.) The Public Library and the Internet studies, which measured public library connectivity and access, found a leveling off in the number of Internet workstations per public library outlet beginning in 2002, an “infrastructure plateau” which is influenced heavily by library size, space limitations, and technical or telecommunications issues. Many libraries report adding wireless access rather than new workstations to meet patron demand, although this can place substantial strain on library bandwidth (Bertot, McClure, and Jaeger 2008;
Bertot and Davis 2007; Davis, Bertot, McClure, and Clark, 2009; McClure, Jaeger, and Bertot 2007).
Partly fueled by this solution to infrastructure limitations, the proportion of public libraries providing wireless Internet access grew from 18 percent in 2004 Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries | 17 to over 76 percent in 2008. Library connection speeds have also increased steadily. Some libraries have even gone beyond providing access inside library buildings by using computer loans, cybermobiles, or community partnerships to help their communities access the Internet (ALA 2009; Bertot et al. 2006, 2007;
Bertot, McClure, and Jaeger 2008).
Figure 2: Change in library use and resources since 1998
Longitudinal analysis of Public Libraries Survey data (1998–2006) suggests that despite external funding initiatives, overall library funding has not kept pace with the growth of patron demands or library service provision; while Internet provision has skyrocketed, operating income, staffing levels, and open hours have remained flat or increased only moderately. Furthermore, libraries are depending more heavily on local government sources for operating income, and less on state and other sources, and spending a smaller portion of operating expenditures on collections. In short, provision of public access to computers and the Internet has been a story of libraries stretching their already limited resources to provide an increasing array of services (Kinney 2009).
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2.3 Previous Findings Public library computers have become a critical resource for many underserved populations and for others who do not have access to the Internet and computers through other means. Several smaller scale studies have investigated the question of use, with most agreeing that the most frequent activities accomplished on library computers are email, general web surfing, educational activities, research, information-seeking, and entertainment (ALA 2007; Bertot et al. 2006a, 2006b; Curry 2002; Gordon, Moore, and Gordon 2003; Gordon et al. 2003; Gross, Dresang, and Holt 2004; Heuertz et al. 2002; Martell 2008; Moe 2004; Slone 2007).
Other common uses include job seeking (ALA et al. 2007), social networking (Curry 2002), activities related to eCommerce and eBusiness (Heuertz et al.
2002), and eGovernment (Bertot et al. 2006a, 2006b; Bertot, McClure, and Jaeger 2008). Several other noteworthy uses of the Internet in libraries include word processing and using spreadsheets (Heuertz et al. 2002), learning basic computer skills (Moe 2004; Gordon, Moore, and Gordon 2003), and printing documents (Heuertz et al. 2002; McClure, Bertot, and Zweizig 1994).
Several studies have also identified differences in use between social or demographic groups, some of which are confirmed in the current study. The Public Access Computing Project (PACP) studies found some differences in use between users with and without other ways of accessing the Internet: users with no other access were more likely to use library computers for email, whereas those with other access were more likely to use the computers for education, business, and monitoring stocks and bonds (Heuertz et al. 2002).
PACP also observed that low income patrons were more likely to use library computers for employment-related functions such as job seeking and resume preparation, and economic downturns have brought greater attention to this role (Brustein 2009; Gordon, Moore, and Gordon 2003; Gronowska 2009; Saulny and Cullotta 2009; Yates 2009).
The U.S. IMPACT Study expands on previous research about the types of information seeking and instrumental tasks most frequently reported by public access technology users. By asking more detailed questions about types of use previously reported in other studies and by producing estimates of the extent and relative distribution of these activities among users, the current study confirms many previous findings and also provides deeper insight into the outcomes of public access technology.
Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries | 19 Purpose and Methods The U.S. IMPACT Study picks up where much of the previously discussed research leaves off, and makes an important original contribution to the literature about public access computing and Internet use by seeking out the users’ perspectives and providing a comprehensive understanding about who patrons are and what they are doing when they use library computer resources.
The research methods were designed to answer questions about the users and uses of public library computing services, develop a basis for outcome evaluation through the development of indicators to demonstrate the impact of public library computing in multiple policy areas, and to involve the public library community in the research process.
3.1 Purpose In June 2007, the IMLS articulated the scope of the U.S. IMPACT Study as
[T]o undertake original research and analysis to identify measurable indicators of the social, economic, personal, and/or professional value of free access to computers, the Internet, and related services at public libraries, and of negative impact where service is weak or absent, and to provide new, reliable data on the benefits to individuals, families, and communities of these services and resources at public libraries. (IMLS 2007, 4) The studies were framed around the following seven specific research