Friday, March 26, 2010

U.S. Public Library Study - A Third of Americans Use Public Library Computer Services

Since the mid to late 90's free access to computers and the Internet in public libraries has evolved from a marginal service and activity to an essential service. In 1996 only 28 percent of U.S. public libraries offered visitors access to the Internet. Today, almost all public library branches offer visitors free access to computers and the Internet, in fact, for many public libraries it has become their core service.

The recently released study of the U.S. public library services, Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries, found that over the past year, 45 percent of the 169 million visitors to public libraries used the library's Internet services during their visit...an amazing figure and a real argument for more money to be put into these services.

The study also found that computer and Internet services at public libraries are extremely valuable to a big chunk of the U.S. population:
...44 percent of people in households living below the federal poverty line ($22,000 a year for a family of four) used public library computers and Internet access. Among young adults (14–24 years of age) in households below the federal poverty line, 61 percent used public librarycomputers and Internet for educational purposes. Among seniors (65 and older) living in poverty, 54 percent used public library computers for health or wellness needs...
It would be great to see the results of a similar study in Canada, I would expect the data to be quite similar. But while public library Internet access provides an important service to millions of Americans living below the poverty line, this study also shows that these services are accessed by people from all walks of life.

This is the first large-scale study in North America exploring how library patrons use this service and was paid for by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and conducted by the University of Washington Information School. The study was conducted in three concurrent phases covering a national telephone survey, nearly 45,000 online surveys at public libraries, and hundred of interviews / case studies.

Here's some more data gathered by this study:
  • Young adults were among the most active, with nearly half of the nation‘s 14 to 18 year olds (an estimated 11.8 million users) reporting they used a library computer during the last year;

  • Nearly two-thirds of library computer users (63 percent) logged on to help others. Fifty-six percent reported helping friends or family with health matters, 46 percent helped find information on education and learning opportunities, and 37 percent helping friends or family find employment or career information;

  • More than 26 million people used public library computers to get government or legal information or to access government services; and

  • More than 32 million visitors reported using library computers for a variety of educational activities: doing their homework, searching for and applying to GED and graduate programs, completing online courses and tests, and even applying for financial aid.
Some incredible data.

In Toronto, the city we call home, it's obvious to us that the Toronto Public Libraries' computer services has become a lifeline for the many who still don't have access at home and rely on public library web access to look for a job, do homework, e-government services, and any number of other activities.

Make sure your public library system continues to get the funding it needs.