December 30, 2007

Information Searches That Solve Problems

People who have faced one of several common government-related problems in the past two years are more likely to consult the internet than other sources, including experts and family members.

In a national phone survey, respondents were asked whether they had encountered 10 possible problems in the previous two years, all of which had a potential connection to the government or government-provided information. Those who had dealt with the problems were asked where they went for help and the internet topped the list:

  • 58% of those who had recently experienced one of those problems said they used the internet (at home, work, a public library or some other place) to get help.
  • 53% said they turned to professionals such as doctors, lawyers or financial experts.
  • 45% said they sought out friends and family members for advice and help.
  • 36% said they consulted newspapers and magazines.
  • 34% said they directly contacted a government office or agency.
  • 16% said they consulted television and radio.
  • 13% said they went to the public library.The survey results challenge the assumption that libraries are losing relevance in the internet age. Libraries drew visits by more than half of Americans (53%) in the past year for all kinds of purposes, not just the problems mentioned in this survey. And it was the young adults in tech-loving Generation Y (age 18-30) who led the pack. Compared to their elders, Gen Y members were the most likely to use libraries for problem-solving information and in general patronage for any purpose.

    Furthermore, it is young adults who are the most likely to say they will use libraries in the future when they encounter problems: 40% of Gen Y said they would do that, compared with 20% of those above age 30 who say they would go to a library.

    “These findings turn our thinking about libraries upside down. Librarians have been asked whether the internet makes libraries less relevant. It has not. Internet use seems to create an information hunger and it is information-savvy young people who are the most likely to visit libraries,” noted Leigh Estabrook, Dean and Professor Emerita at the University of Illinois, co-author of a report on the results.

    She added that internet users were much more likely to patronize libraries than non-users (61% vs. 28%).

    This report is the fruit of a partnership of the University of Illinois –Urbana-Champaign and the Pew Internet & American Life Project. It was funded with a grant from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services, an agency that is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s 122,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The survey was conducted between June 27 to September 4, 2007, among a sample of 2,796 adults, 18 and older. The margin of error is plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.

    The focus of the survey was how Americans address common problems that might be linked to government. The problems covered in the survey: 1) dealing with a serious illness or health concern; 2) making a decision about school enrollment, financing school, or upgrading work skills; 3) dealing with a tax matter; 4) changing a job or starting a business; 5) getting information about Medicare, Medicaid, or food stamps; 6) getting information about Social Security or military benefits; 7) getting information about voter registration or a government policy; 8) seeking helping on a local government matter such as a traffic problem or schools; 9) becoming involved in a legal matter; and 10) becoming a citizen or helping another person with an immigration matter.

    There was some variance in the results, depending on the type of problem that people confronted. For instance, those who dealt with a health problem turned to experts more than any other source, followed by family and friends, and then the internet. And those who had issues related to big government programs such as Social Security or Medicare were most likely to go directly to government agencies for help, then the internet.

    Most people were successful in getting information to help them address a problem no matter what channel they chose and no matter what problem they faced.

  • 65% of those who approached the government for help said they were very successful.
  • 64% of those who went to the public library were very successful.
  • 63% of those who used the internet were very successful.
  • 61% of those who consulted professionals and experts were very successful.Among the sources consulted, the internet was the source that was most often cited as the one that provided a lot of the information people were seeking.

    “It is important to stress, though, that even as our data show the internet is ascending, we also find that large numbers of people do not use the internet and this low-access population prefers getting information and assistance from sources other than the internet,” noted Lee Rainie, Director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, and one of the study’s authors. “Those without broadband connections at home or at work have very different needs and search strategies from those who have woven the internet into their lives.”

    A major focus of this survey was on those with no access to the internet (23% of the population) and those with only dial-up access (13% of the population). This “low-access” population is poorer, older, and less well-educated than the cohort with broadband access at home or at work. They are less likely to visit government offices or libraries under any circumstances. And they are more likely to rely on television and radio for help than are high-access users.

    Another important concern in this research was to see how the rise of the internet might affect the way government officials and librarians could work to meet citizens’ needs.

    “The big message in this survey is that those who want to help citizens – whether they sit in government offices, libraries, non-profit organizations, or politically-active groups – live in a much more complicated environment now than they did a decade ago,” said Evans Witt, CEO of Princeton Survey Research Associates International, the firm that conducted the survey and one of the report’s authors. “They must serve citizen needs that run the spectrum from high-tech digerati who want everything served to them online to grandparents in rural areas who want the government to mail them key documents that are printed on real paper with real ink.”