As library adds Net access, study analyzes usage trends
When Champaign's new library opens Sunday, it will have 87 Internet-connected computers available for public use, not to mention wireless access for people with their own laptops.
The 20 computers in the old library usually had people waiting to use them, library Director Marsha Grove said, so the resource was an important element in planning the new building.
For all of that, however, University of Illinois Professor Leigh Estabrook wonders whether it will be enough.
A study by Estabrook and the Pew Internet & American Life Project says 65 percent of the people in the survey who had used a library for problem-solving informational needs went because of the availability of public-access computers, particularly for the Internet. Of those, 62 percent actually made use of the computers at the library.
That compares with 58 percent who used library reference books for their problem solving and 42 percent who perused newspapers and magazines at the library.
In all, 53 percent of the participants reported going to a local public library in the past 12 months. In an interesting twist, the most likely to have done so was Generation Y, folks 18-30, who presumably are the most computer- and Internet-oriented of the American adults surveyed for the study, results of which were released this week.
Estabrook, professor emerita and former dean of the UI Graduate School of Library and Information Science, said that's not as strange as it may sound for a number of reasons.
For example, parents with children are traditionally heavier users of libraries, she said. College and university students likewise, with the local public library as likely to serve as a campus library for community college commuting and continuing-education students.
Libraries also are filling a role as "public spaces" where civic, educational and social activities take place, from soliciting signatures on petitions to children's story hours, Estabrook added.
Moreover, she said, librarians have been active adopters of Web services, from a presence in virtual worlds like "Second Life" to virtual homework help, that may incline the Internet-savvy to make use of them in the brick and mortar world as well.
There are indications that while people make use of the computers and the Internet at the library, many of them do it in the course of being there for other purposes, Estabrook said.
"People come to use the computers and sometimes they check out a book, too," Grove said.
The survey was done under a $500,000 grant to Estabrook from the Institute of Museum and Library Services with Pew serving as a partner and the contractor for the surveying.
Estabrook also is doing such things as talking to focus groups of local library users and surveying and collecting case studies from librarians as part of the effort.
The findings with respect to demographic and computer use at libraries are something of a collateral benefit. The study's focus is on the increasing provision of government services electronically, particularly as it relates to people with lower incomes and less access to computers and the Internet, and on libraries' role in that area.
The survey asked about accessing government information involving 10 possible problems, ranging from dealing with a serious illness or health concern to dealing with a tax matter.
The Internet proved to be the most popular source, whether accessed at the library, home, work or some other place. It topped professionals such as doctors, lawyers and financial experts, the number two source; friends and family members; newspapers and magazines; and even direct contact with a relevant government office or agency. Respondents did tend to prefer phone or face-to-face contact when more personal issues, like health problems, were involved.
The survey found that people with low access to the Internet – defined as folks who either don't use it or have a slow, dial-up connection – are less successful in getting information they need. People with low access tend to be older, less affluent and less well educated.
But Estabrook said access isn't the only challenge facing "e-government." Some people don't want to use the Internet even if it's available or avoid it for reasons such as privacy concerns, she said.
Still, most people want, and expect, access to government information via the Internet, according to the survey.