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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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28 | Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries Subscription services for magazine and journal articles, genealogy research, product reviews, and investment information remain at the core of most library online resources. However, many libraries have expanded these offerings to include digital books, audio recordings, image collections, and guides to finding information on the Internet. These resources are very popular with patrons, as indicated by the high percentage of users who access these resources both in the library and through library websites.

As seen in Table 5, lower income people use library computers for accessing library-provided electronic resources such as those listed above more frequently than higher income people. Looking at those with household income below the poverty line, 21 percent use library computers to access electronic resources every day or most days compared to just 6 percent of those with income above 300 percent of the poverty guidelines. One reason for this difference in frequency of use may be because higher income patrons access these resources remotely through Internet connections at home. One survey respondent from Maryland wrote to explain how she uses the library’s online resources from


The online library catalog, and the availability of interlibrary loan though the library, are essential to my work as author and historian. I use these resources at least weekly. Also invaluable are the electronic resources my library offers: online access to newspapers, genealogical and historical sites, journals, etc. I can access these from home through the library website and do so several times a week.

Many survey respondents left similar comments about the importance of the electronic resources libraries provide online and how they fit into daily life.

–  –  –

Accessing library resources and patron accounts remotely through a public library website is also a frequent activity: 158 million Americans (65 percent) have paid these types of “virtual visits” to libraries (Appendix Table 3).

The odds of accessing library resources remotely are higher among users with incomes above 300 percent of the poverty threshold, probably reflecting the higher likelihood of these users having alternative access methods. Other characteristics of remote users having higher odds of library specific online

services include:

• People of mixed race and American Indians or Alaska Natives had higher odds than Whites by a factor of 1.45 and 1.47, respectively

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• Those with some high school education or education beyond a high school diploma showed higher odds of using the library online resources remotely than people with a high school degree.

Many public libraries are working to expand the accessibility of their online presence by making the resources available through their websites also accessible through handheld mobile devices like cell phones and personal digital assistants (PDA). Though 58 percent of adult Americans have used their mobile communications devices for non-voice activities such as sending or receiving text messages, accessing information on the Internet, playing music, or watching videos (Horrigan, 2008), only 6 percent of those age 14 and over have used mobile devices to access library resources (Appendix Table 4).

30 | Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries During site visits and in hundreds of survey comments patrons also reported 158 MILLION ACCESS using non-Internet computers in the library for accessing software, especially LIBRARY RESOURCES office applications like word processors and spreadsheets, as well as photo THROUGH THE editing and other desktop publishing software. They used these programs to INTERNET write short stories, poems, and prepare manuscripts; complete homework assignments; create budgets and manage customer lists; and create newsletters “I am currently my and fliers.

preschool’s curriculum Survey respondents also stressed the importance of having library printers specialist and must available for public use. The most frequent types of documents they reported work on finding fun printing were boarding passes for transportation (air, train, bus), driving and educational directions, coupons, and homework.

children's books each and every week. The library online resources are great! I can select the books I need and pick them up when they are ready.

The library has a wonderful system going and I am thankful!”



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Public libraries began offering public Internet access soon after it began to seep into American life in the 1980s and followed its growth through the 1990s.

Today, nearly every public library system across the country offers free Internet access through computer terminals and, increasingly, through wireless networks that allow patrons with their own portable computers to access the Internet in libraries.

In the past 12 months, 77 million (32 percent) Americans age 14 or older took advantage of Internet access in a public library (Appendix Table 5). Although the proportion of the population who accessed the Internet through a public library varied according to income, race, age, and other factors, it was clear from case study interviews and survey results that library Internet access is a critically important resource to people from all walks of life.

Overall Use of Public Access Internet Services Close to 32 percent of the American public ages 14 years or older have accessed the Internet using a library computer or wireless network in the past 12 months.

Public access Internet use is highest among:

• Impoverished people and the working poor (earning 100–200 percent of the poverty guidelines);

• People of mixed race and Native Hawaiians or Pacific Islanders;

• 14–18 year olds;

• Men; and

• People who speak languages other than English at home.

As seen in Figure 3, most people who access the Internet in a public library do so using a library computer terminal (Appendix Table 6); however, 12 percent of the population report connecting to a library wireless network using their own laptop computer (Appendix Table 7), and 10 percent report using both modes of access. Most wireless users also use library computers at some point, though a small number only use their own computers in the library for accessing the Internet.

32 | Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries Figure 3: Proportion of the population using the Internet in public libraries by mode of access Income is a major driver for uses of public library Internet access. People earning between 100 and 200 percent of the poverty guidelines, or about $22,000 to $44,000 for a family of four, had higher odds of using library computers or wireless connections by a factor of 2.68 than people earning more than 300 percent of the poverty guidelines. This is consistent with the lower availability of alternative means for Internet access also reported by lower income earners (Appendix Table 8).

The odds of women visiting public libraries are higher than those of men by a factor of 1.52; however, they are less likely than men to use library computers or wireless networks to access the Internet by a factor of 0.86. Though the magnitude of difference between male and female library users and library Internet users is not great, it does confirm site visit observations.

Across all users, the most frequently reported use of library Internet connections was checking email with 72 percent reporting that they had used library computers for this purpose (Appendix Table 9).

Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries | 33 Over 72 percent of library computer or wireless network users checked email. Public

access Internet use for email is highest among:

• Those with incomes below the poverty threshold;

• People of mixed race, Blacks or African Americans, Native Americans or Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians or Pacific Islanders;

• 14–18 year olds; and

• Those with a grade school education or some education beyond a high school degree.

As in many other activities discussed later in the report, those users with incomes below the poverty threshold have higher odds of using the library computers or wireless networks for sending email, by a factor of 2.40 above those with incomes over 300 percent of the poverty threshold. Other

differences between email users include:

• People of mixed race, Blacks or African Americans, Native Americans or Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians or Pacific Islanders all had higher odds (by a factor of 1.70, 1.44, 1.99, and 1.77) than Whites.

• Youth aged 14–18 had the highest odds of use for email, by a factor of

5.06 compared to those over 75.

• Those with a grade school education or some post-high school education showed higher odds of using the computers for email than those with a high school degree.

Library technology users interviewed during case study visits each had a unique story about why they visit a public library to access the Internet. However, analysis of interviews and survey data showed three main types of users with

fairly stable characteristics and patterns of use:

• Power users: People who use the library for technology and Internet access on a daily or near daily basis. Frequent users are much more likely to rely on the library as their sole point of access than less frequent users and perform more instrumental tasks.

• Supplemental users: Regular users make the library a normal part of their routine, often stopping in to use library computers or wireless Internet connection several times a month. Weekly regular users are more likely to lack alternative means of accessing the Internet than those who visit the library for this purpose less frequently.

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

• Occasional users: Two types of occasional users were found. The first are users who access library resources during emergencies or transitions when their regular computer and Internet access lets them down. During periods of use, the library may be a frequent stop for Internet access, but after the emergency is resolved use of libraries for this purpose drops off sharply. The second type of occasional user typically has uninterrupted access to the Internet, but may stop by the library when away from home to use a computer for quick tasks like looking up driving directions.

In the following sections, the patterns of use and motivations for each of these user types will be illuminated through discussions of users met during the four case studies.

6.1 Power Users Joseph, a 43-year-old job seeker in Oakland, exemplifies library computing “power users,” patrons that use library computers or wireless networks nearly every day. For these users, the library frequently serves as their single or primary location for Internet access (Figure 4).

With income between 100 and 200 percent of the poverty guidelines, Joseph explained that home Internet access is out of his reach financially. However, he also expressed a preference for Internet access at the Oakland Public Library because he finds it a welcoming and productive place where he can attend to

many needs at the same time. He goes on to explain:

That’s what makes the library better than any other place. The amount of space you have. And if you do need to get a book, or you need to do research, additional research, the library’s here and you have the librarians who can help you. But if you go to a coffee shop, you’re limited to your little small area, and your computer, and the amount of time you can stay there because they want you to buy their product. If you don’t want to eat anything, if you’re not hungry… well, you can’t just go there to sit there. You can get away with it for a little while but eventually they’re going to ask you to leave.

As with Joseph, users with their own laptops can often find wireless Internet access elsewhere which explains why fewer wireless users report that they rely on the public library as their only access. However, though wireless Internet access was available in commercial locations around all four case study sites, many users expressed similar concerns about having to spend money on food or Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries | 35 beverages in order to be allowed Internet access, as well as about time limits on how long they could reasonably stay to do work.

Unemployed at the time we spoke with him, Joseph was looking forward to starting a new job that he found using the library’s wireless network: “Just recently I was looking for employment. I came to the library and used my computer with the free Internet to go to Craigslist or other websites. So in the last month, I’ve had four interviews because I was able to use the Internet. And just yesterday, I got hired!” Public library wireless access also allows Joseph to take online computer classes through a college in San Francisco. Using the public library for college is more convenient for him than traveling across the Bay and allows him to pursue his education in a way he feels is most likely to lead him to success.

As seen in Figure 4, although 16 percent of library wireless network users and 23 percent of Internet computer users use the library on a daily basis for Internet access, of those lacking access elsewhere 26 percent use library wireless networks daily and 43 percent use library computers on a daily basis.

36 | Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries Figure 4: Frequency of public access computer terminal and wireless network use by availability of alternative access to the Internet Roberto, a 60-year-old interviewed in Fayetteville, Arkansas, is one such user.

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