March 25, 2010 in City, Nation/World, Region

UW study: Third of Americans use library computers

Top uses include job searches, homework, staying in touch
Mike Prager and the Associated Press
 
CHRISTOPHER ANDERSON photo

Curtis Stedman uses the new computers at the downtown Spokane library Friday, July 17, 2009. A grant from the Gates Foundation enabled the library system to upgrade computers and software.
(Full-size photo)

A new University of Washington study confirms why library computers in the Inland Northwest are always busy.

A third of Americans 14 and older – about 77 million people nationwide – use library computers to look for jobs, connect with friends, do their homework and improve their lives, according to the study.

Librarians in the region say the results, released Thursday, validate their efforts to get the public online for free.

“We have many people waiting to get on computers,” said Beth Gillespie, communications manager for the Spokane County library system, which has about 200 computers with Web access.

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 using public library computers and Internet access during the past year.

Among those aged 14 to 24 in poor households, 61 percent used public library computers and Internet for education purposes, though young people were the biggest library computer users among all demographic groups.

Nearly half of the nation’s 14- to 18-year-olds – about 11.8 million people – reported using a library last year, and a quarter of teens used the library at least once a week.

In Spokane and Coeur d’Alene, library computers with Web connections are being used all day long, while other patrons with laptops are using free wireless Web access at the libraries.

“We have so many computers and so many people are using them,” said Bette Ammon, director of the Coeur d’Alene Library at 702 E. Front St., where 45 computers have Web access.

In downtown Spokane, dozens of computers are being used constantly. The demand is so great that patrons are limited to an hour a day. Reservations often are needed.

There is no time limit for wireless users who bring their own laptops, said Dennis Fredrickson, Downtown Library branch manager.

“Our computers are always in use,” he said, and the library is purchasing additional computers through a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Job-seekers and out-of-town travelers are among those using library computers.

“You don’t have to be a resident to get on our wireless,” he said.

Inland Northwest librarians said use has increased in the past two years as the economy has slowed and people are forced to cut their home budgets or look for new jobs. Use is up 50 percent at Spokane County libraries alone, Gillespie said.

The UW study was paid for by the Gates Foundation, which has long been making money available to get libraries online.

Researchers from the UW Information School compiled the following information from:

• A random national telephone survey of 3,176 people from April to August.

• In-person interviews with library patrons in Baltimore; Fayetteville, Ark.; Marshalltown, Iowa; and Oakland, Calif.

• An online survey answered by 45,000 people after they logged onto a public library computer.

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 chairman of the Master of Science in Information Management at the University of Washington Information School.

Some of the findings were surprising, he said.

“In the health area, over 80 percent of the users said they made a change in their diet after using library computers,” Crandall said, adding that he did not know if the change was permanent.

The most unexpected finding, according to Crandall, is that two out of three 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.

“In terms of library services, we’re deeply undercounting,” he said, referring to library computer searches conducted on others’ behalf.

Crandall said he also was interested to learn that one in four Americans use public library computers while traveling.

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