Opportunity for All (via Library Computers)

Subtitled How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at US Libraries, this was a report on the just released study from the IMLS and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on how library computers help the American public, especially during these tough economic times.

Sari Feldman, president of PLA shared how important the technology skills, training and resources that Cuyahoga Library provides to the newly unemployed are to the huge numbers of jobless in the Cleveland area.   These users, coming from 20th century jobs as they are, are often unequipped to deal with the tools of the information age.  She thanked the Foundation for the computers they’ve provide to Cuyahoga via the Opportunity Online Hardware grants

When the OOHG program started, about one in four libraries provided access to the internet – these days, it’s nearly impossible to find a library that doesn’t.  But, now we finally have concrete data to demonstrate the impact that library technology services have had on millions of Americans.  The study illustrates what’s at risk, particularly for the most vulnerable individuals, if libraries don’t keep up with technology. 

Mary Chute, Deputy Director for Libraries, IMLS, (a co funder of the study), spoke about how we can now show the impact of libraries and hopes that this data will give us a new way to talk to policy makers since we now have hard facts showing how technology in libraries is making US lives better. 

Jill Nishi, Deputy Director, US Libraries, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Michael Crandall, Senior Lecturer and Chair at the University of Washington i School explained that US libraries serve over 169 million people – much more than the population of most countries and 69% of the US population.  Thirty percent of the US uses a library computer terminal and 20% use library terminals exclusively. 

Jill Nishi, Michael Crandall and Mary Chute

For 22% of users, the library is their sole source for computer and internet resources, but surprisingly, 78% of users had access elsewhere and still use library computers.  Some of the reasons these more connected users are at the library terminals include privacy, fast connections, security (they trust the library computer’s security more than their home computer’s for buying or doing financial transactions online) and broken computers (at home who are you going to turn to when your computer breaks down)?  And one in four users use them while traveling.

It’s not just the equipment that’s important.   Library staff and volunteers are vital – 67% of users received one on one help from library staff or volunteers and 14% attended computer related training at the library. 

Library technology also spreads the wealth and promotes altruism.  Sixty three percent of users helped someone else via library computers, so we’re serving many more people than those who walk through our doors.  And 31% of these people used the computers to help a stranger! 

The survey also showed that 74% of people think library internet access is important to them and 84% of people feel this access is important to their community.  This is understandable as our technology is used for a plethora of reasons – 42% of users used library computers to engage in educational activities (think of how that fulfills at least part of most of our mission statements).  Forty percent of users engaged in employment activities and 3.7 million people were hired after using library computers to submit job applications!  We’re making people healthier too – 11.4 million people changed their exercise habits after using library computers to learn about fitness. 

IMLS will use this data to partner with the Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor and Education on programs.  And now the FCC will be including libraries in their broadband initiatives.

So how will you use the conclusions of this study to advocate for increased funding for your library?

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