«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 ...»
Roberto is disabled and earns about $6,000 a year; as a result, he cannot afford Internet or cable television access at home. He still likes to keep up with news and current events though, and does so on library computers almost every day, even contributing to independent media stories on occasion. Roberto also uses the library Internet computers to find new books by his favorite authors and get health information. About three times a week, he brings his 3-year-old niece to
the library to use the computers in the children’s library:
She plays the games down there and she’s doing all types of point and click games, which are really word games and number games. All she knows is that she loves sitting there playing that. I sit there watching her and go “Yeah!” Roberto’s niece is likely to become a public access computer user when she reaches her teen years. Nearly 50 percent of youth aged 14–18 years used a Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries | 37 public library computer to access the Internet in the past year, making them more likely to be public access users than any other age group by large margins.
Nearly all youth who access the Internet through public libraries (98 percent) do so using a library computer terminal, and 24 percent did so once a week or more frequently. About 31 percent also use their own laptop computers with the library wireless Internet connection.
Like 86 percent of users aged 14–18 years, most of the youth interviewed during our field visits also had access to a computer and the Internet at home. Yet for them, the library’s computers were still of critical importance for completing homework for school. Oceana, a 15-year-old user from Oakland, reflected other members of her focus group and also echoed what we heard from youth in the
other field sites:
Household competition for computer and Internet access is not just between siblings, but also between youth and parents who may need to use the home computer for work or to manage household finances. Though most youth volunteered that they have access to computers at school, they expressed a strong preference for using library computers because they also face more competition for resources at school than at the library.
6.2 Supplemental Users Although the early goal for providing computing and Internet resources in public libraries was to bridge the digital divide for people who have no other access to computers and the Internet, 78 percent of public access technology users also have access to a computer and Internet network somewhere else (Appendix Table 8). Nonetheless, many of these users who have access elsewhere are passionate about their need for library access as a regular supplement to their normal access points.
Often, supplemental users lack access to high-speed Internet at home.
Although they may have dial-up at home, they make use of library computers and faster Internet connections to download large files like computer security updates or photos, or to view the many websites that are nearly impossible to
• Women had lower odds of using library computers or wireless networks to access the Internet while traveling than men by a factor of 0.88.
• Those with a grade school education or some education beyond a high school degree showed higher odds than those with a high school diploma. Those with post-graduate education had the highest odds of use during travel compared to high school graduates.
A survey respondent from Harris County, Texas, reported typical travel-related use: “When we travel, I use the computers in various away-from-home libraries for email, looking up route or attractions information, getting hotels, looking up weather forecasts, and other travel related info.” Other travel-related activities reported in survey comments included staying in touch with work, family, or friends through email or social networking sites; finding out about local events like concerts and fairs; paying bills or taking care of banking; and confirming travel reservations and printing out itineraries and boarding passes. Many survey respondents also commented that they use library computers while they are out running errands locally and need quick access for driving directions and other business addresses Other supplemental users explained that they use library computers or wireless networks for a change in scenery or to just get out of the house. This was especially true for people who telecommute or have a home business. As one such user explains: “I normally work from home but use the library and its Internet connection as an alternative worksite if my house is not a good place to work for some reason (e.g., children home sick, Internet connection not working, water turned off).” Some library users also use public access computers regularly during library visits for searching book reviews and read-alike lists from library resources, as well as other resources available through the Internet. One survey respondent’s comment echoes many others: “I search my friends’ [book review] lists while I'm at the library and compare it to the library's computer catalog to find things to read. It's been very helpful to be able to access the Internet at the library for this purpose.”
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• The highest odds of seeking help from librarians were from those users with income below the poverty guidelines, by a factor of 1.51 compared to those with incomes over 300 percent of the poverty guidelines.
• People of mixed race, Blacks or African Americans, American Indians or Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians or Pacific Islanders all had higher odds of receiving help from library staff than Whites, by a factor of 1.13, 1.86, 1.64, and 3.53, respectively.
• People aged 75 years and older had the highest odds of asking for assistance with a computer or the wireless network, with those aged 65–74 years close behind (odds ratio of 0.97 compared to those older than 75), and steadily decreasing odds as age decreased, to a ratio of
0.43 for those between the ages of 14 and 18 years compared to those older than 75).
• Those speaking languages other than English in the home also had higher odds of use by a factor of 1.94 over those who speak English in the home.
As seen in Figure 5, the most frequent type of help received was for using the library’s computers (51 percent), followed by getting help finding information on the library’s website (34 percent) and getting help with printing or saving files (32 percent).
Figure 5: Type of help received from library staff or volunteers
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• Those of Latino or Hispanic heritage had higher odds of taking computer classes at the library than those of non-Latino or non-Hispanic origin, by a factor of 2.31.
• People of mixed race, Blacks or African Americans, Asians, American Indians or Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians or Pacific Islanders all showed higher odds ratios of engaging in this activity than Whites (by factors of 1.45, 2.41, 1.23, 2.00, and 3.39, respectively).
• Those with education levels below a high school degree (grade school by a factor of 1.98 and some high school by a factor of 1.31), and those with some college (by a factor of 1.32) or a two year degree (by a factor of 1.24) had higher odds than high school graduates of taking a library computer class.
• People aged 75 years and older had the highest odds of taking computer classes at the library, with steadily decreasing odds as age decreased, to a ratio of 0.15 for those between the ages of 14 and 18 years compared to those older than 75 years.
• Those speaking languages other than English in the home also had higher odds of receiving formal training at a public library by a factor of
1.63 over those who speak English in the home.
The training offered by public libraries often complements other public service agencies by providing basic skills training that those agencies are unable to offer themselves. For example, a librarian in Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library commented on how the Veterans Administration refers its clients to the library for assistance with job searches and computer training.
A branch manager in Baltimore, Maryland, commented on the computer classes
offered at the library:
They’re used by people of all ages, 18 to 80…who come in and say, “I don’t know anything about computers, can you help me?” Which is great that we have the lab here, because then we can recommend, teach classes, anything from just basic skill builders for people who have never clicked a mouse, to advanced presentation software and everything in between.... They’re always full, and they do the reservations pretty far in advance for it.
Those responding to the surveys provided insight into some of the reasons people have for taking computer classes at the library, including this comment from a parent: “My two oldest children have taken computer classes at the Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries | 45 library to gain knowledge about certain computer programs. I feel I am not best suited to teach these things and that a librarian would be a better resource person.” Another respondent indicated the value of the training in order to become more proficient in the use of computers: “I needed to learn about computer programs. I've never had any computer training. This is a great resource to learn about computers.” In Baltimore, Maryland, the Enoch Pratt Free Library director mentioned that sometimes the staff in computer labs find notes left under the computers at the end of the day saying, “Thank you, without the use of this I wouldn't have gotten an A on my paper or I wouldn't have found this job.” Whether through the individual help that users of library computers and Internet connections receive from the library staff or the formal training offered by many libraries, users clearly find the trained staff and capable instructors offered through the public library system to be a valuable asset and a reason why public access technology in libraries is preferable to other venues that might not have staff with the same service and teaching skills that many librarians gain as part of their Master’s level education or other training.. Many people taking advantage of technology training and one-on-one help in libraries indicate that they find the library and the people working there to be an important aid in helping them learn how to use computers and online resources to meet their needs.
6.5 Using Library Computers to Help Others One of the common characteristics that users of public access computing in public libraries share is that they help others. Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of users across the surveys reported that they had used a library computer or Internet connection to help friends, family members, coworkers, and even strangers (Appendix Table 13). This behavior was also reported extensively by users and commented on by library and community agency staff during our case study visits, confirming that the benefits of public access computing extend beyond the individual users to the social networks and communities of these users.
46 | Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries The study shows that nearly two-thirds, or 63 percent of users (48.6 million people) used library computers on behalf of another person to either seek information or carry out an instrumental activity. The use of library technology for activities related to
helping others is highest among:
• People without access to the Internet except at a public library;
• Lower income and impoverished people;
• People of mixed race, Blacks or African Americans, American Indians or Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians or Pacific Islanders;
• People between the ages of 14 and 24 and 45 and 54;
• Women; and
• People who speak languages other than English in their home The types of help given to others encompass all the activities users performed.
There was no shortage of examples of helping others provided by case study respondents. One story about helping others came from a user in Fayetteville, Arkansas. At 28 years old, Calvin is an active information seeker on other people’s behalf. He said people sometimes call him up and ask him to seek information and do things for them at the library, including buying goods such as car parts online.
Other examples include a teenage participant in a focus group in Marshalltown, Iowa, who explained how he uses the library computers to look up the prices of rubber gloves and other medical supplies for his mother who is a home health nurse. A teenage girl described looking up motorized chairs for her grandmother to get for her grandfather. April, a 52-year-old bus driver, explained that she did historical research about a friend’s house. ZsaZsa, a 48-year-old woman who works full-time but is looking for a new job in Oakland, California, described how she searches for college and employment opportunities for her family and friends.
Although the U.S. IMPACT Study found that most users engaged in activities related to helping other people, certain types of users were more likely to
engage in this behavior more than others (Appendix Table 13):
• Lower income users (those making less than 300 percent of the poverty threshold) have higher odds of using the library’s online services for helping others than those making more than 300 percent of the poverty threshold (by a factor of 1.58 for those below the poverty threshold, decreasing to a factor of 1.28 for those making 200–300 percent of the poverty threshold).
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