A third of U.S. residents 14 and older—about 77 million people—use public library computers to do their homework, look for jobs, connect with friends, and improve their lives, according to a new study.
The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle, confirms what public libraries have been saying as they compete for public dollars to expand their services and high-speed Internet access: Library use by the general public is widespread and not just among poor people.
But researchers found that those living below the federal poverty line—families of four with a household income of $22,000 or less—had the highest use of library computers. Among those households, 44 percent reported having used public library computers and Internet access during the past year.
Among those ages 14 to 24 in poor households, 61 percent used public library computers and Internet access for educational purposes. (“How to Close The Digital Divide? Fund Public Libraries,” this issue.)
Young people were the biggest library computer users among all demographic groups. Nearly half the nation’s 14- to 18-year-olds—about 11.8 million people—reported having used a library computer last year, and a quarter of teenagers used a library computer at least once a week.
The study was conducted by the University of Washington’s information school and paid for by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (Gates also provides grant support for Editorial Projects in Education, the publisher of Education Week.)
The university researchers gathered information in three ways: a random national telephone survey of 3,176 people from April to August 2009, in-person interviews with library patrons in Baltimore; Fayetteville, Ark.; Marshalltown, Iowa; and Oakland, Calif., and an online survey that was answered by 45,000 people after they logged on to use a public library computer.
Homework a Common Use
Education Week recently began a special technology feature that will appear in every issue of the newspaper, covering news, trends, and ideas about digital learning and administrative uses of tech tools in schools.
Visit Education Week Digital Directions Web site for regular updates on news, trends, and ideas in education technology.
The most common uses for library computers included gaining access to government agencies, searching for jobs and filling out applications, doing homework, communicating with friends and family, banking, seeking health advice, running a business, completing online courses, and seeking financial aid for college.The researchers were intrigued to find that people across all age and ethnic groups used library computers, said Michael Crandall, one of the principal authors of the study and the chairman of the master of science in information management program at the University of Washington.
The most unexpected finding, according to Mr. Crandall, is that two out of three of the people who use library computers said they are using the computers to help friends or family, such as scanning job databases or looking up information for others.
Mr. Crandall said he was also interested to learn that one in four Americans uses public library computers while traveling.
A version of this article appeared in the April 07, 2010 edition of Education Week as Study: Library Computers Serve Key Ed. Role