A third of Americans — about 77 million people — use public library computers to look for jobs, connect with friends, do their homework and improve their lives, according to a new study released Thursday.
It confirms what public libraries have been saying as they compete for public dollars to expand their services and high-speed Internet access: library use by the general public is widespread and not just among poor people.
But 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 computers 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.
The study was paid for by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and conducted by the University of Washington Information School, which gathered information in three ways:
— 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 that was answered by 45,000 people after they logged on to use 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 of the 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 the others benefiting from library computer searches conducted on their behalf.
Crandall said he was also interested to learn that one in four Americans use public library computers while traveling.
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