Libraries key to getting low-income populations online
One-third of all Americans over the age of 14 have used a public library to access the Internet during the past year, according to a study released Thursday by the University of Washington and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Of the 77 mililon people who visit libraries to get on the Web, a large portion are low-income individuals looking for jobs and doing homework at computer centers and using wireless network connections.
The survey comes amid a growing recognition by the federal government that libraries and other community centers represent a potential solution to getting more people connected to high-speed Internet services. As part of its national broadband plan released last week, The Federal Communications Commission proposed bringing ultra fast 1 gigabit connections to libraries and other community institutions through federal grants and subsidies.
“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, which also funded the study. “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.”
And amid the recession, many of the 50,000 people surveyed said they used the Internet to find work, apply for college, get public benefits and look up medical information.
Overall, 44 percent of people living below the federal poverty line used computers and the Internet at their public libraries, according to the study.
But teenagers were the biggest users – half of those surveyed who used a library computer were between the ages of 14 and 18. And many of those young people said they used the Internet as they did their homework.
Interestingly, the majority of library Internet users surveyed said they also have a connection at home. But they said they went to their public libraries because the Internet connections were faster and they could ask a librarian to help with the technology.
There are an estimated 16,000 public libraries in the United States and most of them offer Internet access. That’s a sharp increase from 1996, when a little over one-quarter of public libraries offered free access to computers and the Internet.
Still, one-third of libraries say their technology is inadequate and that they aren’t able to meet demand from users.
“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.”
Two page summary (PDF)
Access the Complete Document (212 pages; PDF)
Note: The report includes an 11 page executive summary.
Source: Washington Post