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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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Use of library technology across the seven activity areas varied considerably, ranging from a maximum of 60% of users engaged in social activities to just 7% engaging in entrepreneurial activities (Figure 8). Users who rely solely on the library for their access to computers and the Internet show consistently higher use in all domains compared with those users who have alternative access elsewhere, with the exception of education and entrepreneurship, where use by both groups of users is nearly equal. These differences will be discussed further 54 | Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries in each of the sections related to characteristics of users and use within the different areas.

Figure 8: Ranking of use areas by availability of alternative access users In the course of this study, interview subjects and survey respondents were asked about their use of library computers and Internet connections to pursue these and other specific activities in their daily lives in order to better understand the effect this public resource has on the well-being of individuals, families, and communities. The survey questions provided valuable information about the extent of certain types of computer use associated with high-value outcomes. The questions also tested the value of these activities as indicators Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries | 55 for measuring and evaluating the impact of library computer services and resources. The findings from the survey are validated and illuminated by interview respondents who provide more nuanced examples of the specific uses, as well as a better sense of how users benefit from these uses.

In addition to asking users about their behavior during case study visits, library staff, board members, volunteers, and community service providers provided their impressions of what library computer users are doing and the benefits that may have accrued to the community at-large as a result of that use. In some instances, these ways are very purposeful, for example, as the result of organized actions around supporting literacy or homeless people; in other examples, they are more nuanced and emerge due to the strong sense of community abetted by the library’s leadership role.

The following sections will examine specific activities associated with use in the areas described previously, with discussion of the user characteristics most prominently associated with each activity.

7.1 Education A central mandate of public libraries has been to support the life-long learning of all members of their communities, from infants at story-time, to preschoolers learning early-literacy, children at elementary levels, older children through high school, and adults through vocational, college, and change in career.

The use of library computers to help gain knowledge and interact with services related to early childhood education, K–12, colleges or universities, graduate schools, adult education, and continuing education was the second highest reported use for library computer users, both youth and adult, with 42 percent of the respondents indicating that they had engaged in educational activities.

From providing a place to do homework to applying to college or looking for financial aid, library online services are a key part of the educational system in our country.

Libraries have become an important part of the educational system in the United States, particularly through their computer and Internet services; in addition to allowing users access to the educational system online, they provide individual work stations, specialized classes, one-on-one training, and coordinated efforts with other groups in support of educational activities. In this section, we discuss the role of library computer services with regard to 56 | Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries education and life-long learning from the perspectives of the users, library staff, and community providers across the full educational spectrum.

The study asked about activities in the following areas:

• College enrollment and financial aid, including learning about programs, applying to programs, and getting financial support; and

• Managing schoolwork, such as completing online classes and assignments, and using library computers for homework.

Following an overview of high-use educational activities and user characteristics, this section presents detailed findings in these two activity areas along with comments and insights from interview participants.

Most Prevalent Users for Education Access to library technology can make a big difference in educational outcomes, especially for young people. The principal of an inner city private preparatory academy In Oakland, California, attributed his school’s outstanding success in

part to the local library, saying:

One hundred 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.

Over 42 percent of public library computer users engaged in at least one of the educational activities asked about in the study in the past year (Appendix Table 14). Of educational users, 47 percent used library computers to help a relative, friend, or someone else with their educational needs (Appendix Table 15).

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58 | Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries Activities Associated with Educational Use As seen in Figure 9, homework and learning about educational programs were the most frequently reported educational use of activities in the use area survey respondents were questioned about. The difference in use between those who have alternative access outside the library and those who rely upon the library for their only access is also show in Figure 9, with two areas showing heavier use by those with alternative means for accessing the Internet: doing homework and taking online classes.

Figure 9: Educational activities by availability of alternative access

Interviews with users provided some insights into why people might be using the library even if they have other access for these purposes. One reason given was the competition for computer time at school labs between students and at home between siblings and, oftentimes, parents. The convenience of the library’s location in relation to schools was also a factor mentioned during focus Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries | 59 groups with youth. Osher, a young student from Fayetteville, Arkansas, whose home Internet connection is unreliable, explained, I live sort of far away; it takes me like a half hour to get home. So lots of times I’ll come here and use the computers to type things for school projects…. Sometimes it’s much easier for me to come here if I have something in the evening than go all the way back home.

Another reason for higher use by people with alternative technology access was the availability of peripheral services provided by the library. Saba, who is another young user (age 22) in Fayetteville, Arkansas, gave an example. A power user who relies on access to library computers to search for information about her several medical conditions as well as job searching and reconnecting her family, Saba is also a college student and the library’s lab is where she

completes all her work:

I type and print [my assignments] here; I have to write them by hand, and then I have to type them. I use the computer lab at school sometimes, but not too often because it’s always so packed because of all the other students in there. I would rather come here because it’s not as crowded.

A third reason offered for using the library computers for educational purposes was proctored exams. As explained by a librarian in Oakland, California, I helped somebody last week; he used the computer to take an online proctored exam, which, again, you can’t do from home because you have to have somebody else proctoring you, even if you’re on the computer. So I think there’s a place for libraries to do that, because you have the staff.

Exam proctoring is a necessary component of many online programs whose students are often located far from the college. Public libraries are one of the few locations online learners can find both the computers and qualified proctors they need to complete exams and other coursework.

College Enrollment and Financial Aid The process of applying for college and other educational opportunities and obtaining financial aid has moved online along with many other educational activities in recent years. Without access to the Internet, entry to the higher educational system can be a tedious and difficult, sometimes impossible, process. Libraries provide an important role in providing educational opportunities for many people in this area.

60 | Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries Learning about Programs A first step in meeting educational needs for many users is learning about a program of study—almost 37 percent of library computer users who engaged in educational activities indicated that they used library computer resources to look for information on educational programs ranging from GEDs to graduate degrees (Appendix Table 16).

Almost 37 percent of users who engaged in educational activities used their library’s online services to learn about educational programs.

Among all users of library computer resources, this activity is highest among

• People with incomes below the poverty guidelines;

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

• People between the ages of 14 and 34 years;

• Those with education levels more than a high school diploma; and

• People who speak a language other than English at home.

Among all users, those with incomes below the poverty guidelines had higher odds of using library computers to look for information on educational programs by a factor of 1.76 over those with incomes 300 percent or greater than the poverty guidelines. Users with income between 100 and 300 percent of the poverty guidelines likewise had greater odds of looking for educational programs than those with income above the guidelines, but the odds ratios of those between 100 and 300 percent of the poverty guidelines were still lower than for those in poverty. Other factors with significant differences in likelihood

of library use for this purpose are:

• People of mixed race, Blacks or African Americans, American Indians or Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians or Pacific Islanders likewise had higher odds of use for this purpose (by a factor of 1.97, 2.16, 2.04, and 3.57, respectively) than Whites for this type of use. The odds of Asians using library computers for learning about educational programs was lower than Whites by 12 percent.

• Looking at age, 14–18 year olds, 19–24 year olds, and 25–34 year olds showing highest odds of use for learning about degree programs compared to users over the age of 75 (by a factor of 3.17, 5.11, and 3.15, respectively).

• Those with an education beyond high school showed higher odds of using the library for this purpose than those with just a high school Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries | 61 diploma, with those having a two-year degree showing the highest odds of use for learning about educational programs (by a factor of 1.64).

• Those who speak a language other than English at home showed higher odds by a factor of 2.15 of using the library online resources for this purpose over those whose home language was English.

Finding a degree program that fits the needs of individual learners involves many considerations: location, admissions requirements, program content, and cost, just to name a few. The complexity of searching for a school was explained by a user from the Baltimore, Maryland, library considering enrolling in a doctoral program. Josephine, a 40-year-old, college-educated writer who has a computer at home but no Internet access, recalled her lengthy search that

spanned many public access computer sessions:

There was just different information I needed. I had to go and see what schools were available, what course offerings they had. And for other schools I was researching on my own, I’d look up financial aid information, open house information. And then, of course, there are schools that are online schools; there’s just a whole list of them.

Nelson, a 20-year-old unemployed user from the Marshalltown, Iowa, library, provides another example of looking for an educational program to fit his needs. He explained: “I just got out of high school last year, so I’m looking to go to college—somewhere that can do online classes, because I don’t want to leave town. I love the Internet and doing stuff.” Searching for college often starts in high school when many young library patrons take advantage of the library computer services to look for college information. Oceana, a 15-year-old participant in an Oakland, California, focus group, competes—usually unsuccessfully—with her brother to use their home computer that currently does not have Internet access. An active user of library recommended sites for researching her homework and of social networking sites, Oceana is very keen on going to college. She described getting started

with her college search:

I use [the computer] to look at college information, even though I'm still in high school. I'm trying to figure out what I want to major in at college, so I look it up and see what interests me. I look for interesting stuff… I was thinking Yale but financially I might not be able to afford that.

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