Some 77 million Americans used a public library computer to access the Internet in the past year, according to a new report by the University of Washington Information School and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Low-income adults are more likely to rely on the public library as their main resource to access computers and the Internet than any other income group. Over all, 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 for Internet access. Teens are the most active users. Half of 14- to 18-year-olds reported they used a library computer during the past year, usually 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."
In the last 12 months forty percent of library computer users received help with career needs. Among these users, 75 percent searched for a job online. Half of these users filled out an online application or submitted a resume.
Other highlights from the report include:
*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.
"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."