January 22, 2013

Library Services in the Digital Age

Part 3: Technology use at libraries

Some 73% of Americans ages 16 and over say there are places in their community where they can access the internet or use a computer for free.2 And 35% say they have used those free access points.

Younger Americans, particularly 16-17 year-olds, are significantly more likely to have used free internet and computers in their communities than older adults. Americans living in households in the highest income bracket are more likely than those living in the lowest income bracket to have used free internet and computers. Americans with higher levels of education, especially college graduates, are also more likely than those with lower levels of education to have done this.

Use of computers and the internet at libraries

We asked those who had visited libraries in the past 12 months if they used the computers and the internet at the library. Our question was designed to include people who used the wired computers at the library and people who had used the library WiFi connection, too. Some 26% of those ages 16 and older had connected to the internet at the library.

  • There are some notable demographic differences in the answers to this question. 66% of those who used the internet at a library in the past 12 months did research for school or work. Hispanics, rural residents, and people ages 16-49 are especially likely to say they did this activity.
  • 63% say they browsed the internet for fun or to pass the time. African-Americans and Hispanics are more likely than whites to report this internet use, as are those ages 18-29.
  • 54% say they used email. Women are more likely than men to say this, as are those ages 18-49.
  • 47% say they got health information.
  • 41% say they visited government websites or got information about government services. People living in households earning less than $30,000 are especially likely to report this use.
  • 36% say they looked for jobs or applied for jobs online. African-Americans are the most likely to report this activity. In addition, those ages 18-49, those who live in cities, high school graduates, and those in households earning less than $50,000 are also more likely than others to use library computers this way.
  • 35% say they visited social networking sites. Those ages 16-29 are especially likely to report this use.
  • 26% say they downloaded or watched online video. Suburban residents are more likely than others to report this.  
  • 16% say they bought a product online.
  • 16% say they paid bills or did online banking.
  • 16% say they took an online class or completed an online certification program.

Some 36% of those who had ever visited a library say the library staff had helped them use a computer or the internet at a library. African-Americans and Hispanics are more likely than whites to access the internet at their local library, as are parents of minor children, those under age 50, those living in households earning less than $30,000, and those with at least some college experience.

How important is free computer and internet access at libraries?

We did not ask a question about whether library internet users depend on that connection as their primary internet connection. But we asked respondents to this survey how important they think it is to have free access to computers and the internet at the library in their community.

Some 77% of all those ages 16 and older say it was “very important” for libraries to offer free access to computers and the internet to the community and another 18% say it was “somewhat important.” Just 2% say it was not too important and another 2% say it was not important at all.

Again, there are some noteworthy demographic differences in the answers: African-Americans and Hispanics are more likely than whites to feel free access was very important. Women and those with some college experience are also especially likely to feel this way. This topic is discussed further in Part 4 of this report.

  1. The American Library Association reports that 62% of libraries report they are the only source of free public access to computers and the Internet in their communities. Study available here.