UW iSchool: 77 million use library computers

Faced with unprecedented budget cuts, the head of New York public libraries took his case to city hall this year armed with a groundbreaking study conducted by the UW iSchool. Library C.E.O. Paul LeClerc cited the report on library Internet use in interviews with national television and in the Huffington Post, waging a campaign that resulted in restoration of $26.8 million of the $36.8 million in proposed cuts.

Other library leaders are following suit as they confront deep recessionary cuts, reduced hours, and closures. The study, "Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits From Internet Access at Public Libraries, comes with a "toolkit" that shows them how to use the data to create media op-ed pieces, letters to the editor, and PowerPoint presentations that raise awareness of the powerful impact library technology has on human lives. "This information comes at a critical time," said Mamie Bittner, spokesperson for the Institute of Museum and Library Services. "It shows, 'Here is what is lost if we curtail library hours in the United States.'"

The ambitious 200-page report portrays libraries in the Information Age as active, adaptive, and vital community centers. In a single year, 77 million Americans age 14 or older used public library computers and Internet access, many as a lifeline to secure government benefits, obtain legal permits, make family connections, apply for college, research critical health care information, or search for jobs. The current report, focused on users, is the first phase of the study. The second phase, to be completed this fall, will look at the results from the libraries' point of view, weighing how to improve services in light of study findings.

Those Internet users included Ewan, an unemployed 44-year-old who told researchers that without the library, "I would've never had access to email. I would've never been able to do a job search. The library is essential."

The report shows that 3.7 million people found new employment and 2.5 million were accepted into a college degree or certificate programs after filling out online applications at libraries. Approximately 14 million people changed their diet after looking up health information on library computers, and 11.4 million changed their exercise habits.

"Even I was amazed at the quantifiable impact that access to information was making in people's lives," said Seattle City Librarian Susan Hildreth, who made a presentation of the study to the Seattle City Council with study co-director Michael Crandall, a senior lecturer at the iSchool and current chair of the Masters of Science in Information Management program.

Crandall, who helped install some of the first computers in high-poverty area libraries earlier this decade, said he was amazed how quickly libraries have transformed themselves into central hubs of electronic information for their communities. "They're not just places where collections of books sit - they're places that people use to transform their lives," he said. "That doesn't get talked about enough."

Nor does the role libraries play in leveling the digital playing field. The study shows that 44 percent of the people who live below the federal poverty line access free computers and Internet at the library, and for many it is their sole computer resource. As most jobs, court systems, unemployment benefits, taxes, and other governmental services move online, they must have a way to follow. "We're setting up a two-class society if we don't make sure that the people without access at home have some alternative way of getting there," said Crandall.

"Opportunity for All," published by the IMLS and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is making waves as it moves out in the world. Released in March, the report became part of a far-reaching conversation as the FCC began charting the future of broadband and digital inclusion across the United States. The U.S. Department of Labor Employment and Training Division, presented with study statistics that show libraries act as de facto employment centers, formed an official partnership with the IMLS that encourages collaboration with public libraries in helping the nation's millions of unemployed job-seekers.

While library studies typically report the number of public access computers, users, stations, or station waits, the iSchool project is the first, large-scale study to look at who uses the technology, how they use it, and why. Top areas of impact were community connections, education, employment, and health/wellness. "Our research was unprecedented. No one has ever done a study of this magnitude on the user side of public libraries," said study co-director Karen Fisher, professor in the iSchool's Technology & Social Change Group.

Findings in "Opportunity for All" are based on a national telephone survey and nearly 50,000 web survey responses from patrons of more than 400 public libraries across the country. The researchers also visited four public libraries interviewing patrons, librarians, administrators, local service providers, and policy makers. Pulling the report together was a feat of human engineering, and the team signed on 20 students from the iSchool to help. "An important thing in terms of process was our ability to give a hands-on opportunity to MLIS students to participate in real, cutting-edge, high-level research," said Samantha Becker, research project manager.

The story emerging from the data took some unexpected twists. Numbers showed three-quarters of the library technology users had access to a computer and Internet network elsewhere. They might come to the library because they were traveling, needed faster broadband, wanted to download large files, had a computer down, or because they'd been kicked off the only computer at home by older siblings. "This study really blew the lid off the stereotype of who uses public access computers," said Fisher. "'It wasn't just people who couldn't afford a computer. It was people from all walks of life."

Many came in need of one-on-one help. Library staff often began instruction with tasks as simple as how to click a mouse, how to enter a Web address, how to secure an email address, or how to send a form electronically. "The librarians' care, concern, and empathy for people who are struggling to keep up and participate in digital society really struck me," said Becker.

Demands on those staff members have mushroomed. Businesses send job-seekers to fill out applications at libraries. Government agencies send clients to library computers to process paperwork. Employers send new hires to libraries to get free computer training classes. In Oakland, California, the school district dropped most of its high school counselors and told students to go to the library to get the information they needed on colleges. The district saved money, and passed the job along to its local library, which had to absorb the cost.

The authors of the study call these undocumented, underfunded duties "shadow mandates," and have advised libraries to reveal them to city councils, city managers, legislators, and other policymakers. "It's increasing the workload without compensation," said Crandall. "If the government asks the library to deliver services, then it should partner with the library and give them the resources to do that."

Those resources could provide a needed boost. Libraries are scrambling to keep up with computer demand. A third report they lack even minimally adequate Internet connections. There are too few work stations, too few trained IT staff members. The equipment quickly turns obsolete.

Keeping up with technology is an expensive proposition. But, in a country where library Internet use has exploded by more than 300 percent in fifteen years, there is no turning back. "This study shows that libraries have as much of a role in addressing digital literacy as they did - and do - in addressing prose literacy," said Becker. "But digital literacy is far more difficult. The sands are constantly shifting."

Look up the full report at