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First-Ever National Study: Millions of People Rely on Library Computers for Employment, Health, and Education | Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

77 million people used library computers and Internet access in past year

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
206-709-3400
University of Washington Information School
David Shepard
Phone: +1.206.221.6182

Institute of Museum and Library Services
Mamie Bittner
Phone: +1.202.653.4632

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Nearly one-third of Americans age 14 or older–roughly 77 million people–used a public library computer or wireless network to access the Internet in the past year, according to a national report released today. In 2009, as the nation struggled through a recession, people relied on library technology to find work, apply for college, secure government benefits, learn about critical medical treatments, and connect with their communities.

The report, Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries, is based on the first, large-scale study of who uses public computers and Internet access in public libraries, the ways library patrons use this free technology service, why they use it, and how it affects their lives. It was conducted by the University of Washington Information School and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Low-income adults are more likely to rely on the public library as their sole access to computers and the Internet than any other income group. Overall, 44 percent of people living below the federal poverty line used computers and the Internet at their public libraries.

Americans across all age groups reported they used library computers and Internet access. Teenagers are the most active users. Half of the nation’s 14- to 18-year-olds reported that they used a library computer during the past year, typically to do school homework.

“People from all walks of life use library computers to perform routine and life-changing tasks, from emailing friends to finding jobs,” said Michael Crandall, senior lecturer and chair of the Master of Science in Information Management at the University of Washington Information School. “More than three-quarters of those who used the library Internet connections had access at home, work, or elsewhere. Oftentimes, they needed a faster connection, assistance from a librarian, or temporary access in an emergency.”

The use of library technology had significant impact in four critical areas: employment, education, health, and making community connections. In the last 12 months:

  • 40 percent of library computer users (an estimated 30 million people) received help with career needs. Among these users, 75 percent reported they searched for a job online. Half of these users filled out an online application or submitted a resume.
  • 37 percent focused on health issues. The vast majority of these users (82 percent) logged on to learn about a disease, illness, or medical condition. One-third of these users sought out doctors or health care providers. Of these, about half followed up by making appointments for care.
  • 42 percent received help with educational needs. Among these users, 37 percent (an estimated 12 million students) used their local library computer to do homework for a class.
  • Library computers linked patrons to their government, communities, and civic organizations. Sixty-percent of users – 43.3 million people – used a library’s computer resources to connect with others.
“There is no ambiguity in these numbers. Millions of people see libraries as an essential tool to connect them to information, knowledge, and opportunities,” said Marsha Semmel, acting director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services. “Policy makers must fully recognize and support the role libraries are playing in workforce development, education, health and wellness, and the delivery of government services.”

The library’s role as a technology resource has exploded since 1996, when only 28 percent of libraries offered Internet access. Today, almost all public libraries offer visitors free access to computers and the Internet.

Unfortunately, up to a third of all libraries say they lack even minimally adequate Internet connections to meet demand. More report that they cannot provide the access their patrons truly need.

“Library technology services have created opportunity for millions of Americans, but public libraries struggle to replace aging computer workstations and increase the speed of their Internet connections,” said Allan Golston, president of the United States Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “This study highlights what is at risk, particularly for low-income individuals who heavily rely on the public library for their technology, if future public and private investment in public libraries doesn’t keep pace with demand.”

The report’s findings are based on nearly 50,000 surveys – including 3,176 from a national telephone survey and 44,881 web survey responses – from patrons of more than 400 public libraries across the country. The full report is available at http://tascha.washington.edu/usimpact.

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About the University of Washington Information School
The University of Washington Information School believes in the power of information to change lives. Through instruction, research and practice, the UW Information School, or "iSchool," is shaping the ways people create, store, find, manipulate and share information. Our work helps people address information challenges more ethically, effectively and with a heightened sense of possibility. The UW iSchool offers a Bachelor of Science in Informatics degree, and three graduate degrees: Master of Library and Information Science, Master of Science in Information Management, and Ph.D. in Information Science.

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About the Institute of Museum and Library Services
The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation's 123,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The Institute's mission is to create strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas. The Institute works at the national level and in coordination with state and local organizations to sustain heritage, culture, and knowledge; enhance learning and innovation; and support professional development.

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