Last Thursday, during the Public Library Association Conference in Portland, an important new study was released. It's full of the sort of data that U.S. public librarians need right now to prove how much they are used and valued by their communities. (Note how the press release starts with a big, stunning number to get the attention of the media!)
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.
The full press release has been released in various outlets; you can find it here.
The PR itself includes some of the main findings, such as these:
* 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.
* 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.” (emphasis mine)
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 for free here.
The Gates Foundation even provides the accompanying high-quality image; download it here.