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Myth vs. Fact: Who are Today's Library Computer Users?

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Monday, June 27, 2011


IMLS Press Contacts
Natasha Marstiller,
Mamie Bittner,

Myth vs. Fact: Who are Today's Library Computer Users?

A Demographic Analysis of Public Access Computer Users and Uses in U.S. Public Libraries

Washington, DC—Public access computers in U.S. public libraries continue to be in high demand according to Who’s in the Queue: Public Access Computer Users, a new research brief by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). The report dispels some myths that have lingered regarding the target service population for public access computers in U.S. public libraries. It also provides a demographic analysis of public access computer users and uses and demonstrates that public libraries are providing much more than basic technology access. 

"This study challenges commonly held perceptions about library users and demonstrates public libraries’ role in the global information economy," said Susan Hildreth, IMLS Director. "Libraries are constantly reinventing themselves to meet the ever-changing information needs of their communities."
The report examines trends in library computer use according to demographic characteristics. Eight major categories of activities were examined: social connections/communications, education, employment, health and wellness, government and legal, community engagement, managing finances, and entrepreneurship.

Select Findings and Background Information:

Myth: Library computer users are a small segment of the population.
Fact: One third of the American public used a library computer in 2009. Public access computer users largely mirror the general public in terms of age and education. Libraries are at the crossroads of the community serving and young and old, rich and poor, people with little formal education as well as those with graduate degrees.

Myth: People who use library computers to access the internet are less likely to have access to computers and the Internet at home. 
Fact: The majority of library public access computer users (86 percent) reported they had "regular access to a computer and the Internet for your personal use" at home. That is not to say that the remaining fourteen percent of users (8,340,722) do not have significant public access computing service needs. People who lacked home access were frequent users, with 65 percent reporting that they used computers and the internet in the library at least once a week or daily.

Myth: Libraries are just for kids and books.
Fact: In addition to providing books and children’s programs, libraries are places for people to explore new technologies, check out new music, eBooks, videos and a variety of other resources. People of all ages make use of library computers for a wide range needs. In 2009 an estimated 77 million people over the age of 14 used library computers. Young people between 14-19 were most likely to be using computers for educational purposes, users between the ages 25-54 were focused on employment and training, and older adults focused on health information.

Public access computing is not a temporary community service whose need will fall away as more people gain access in their homes. People with access at home and without access at home are going to the library to complete school assignments, to find a job, to learn more about health and wellness issues, and much more.Libraries have responded to demand by increasing financial investments in hardware, subscription databases and computing infrastructure. Between 2000 and 2007 alone the availability of Internet terminals in public libraries increased by 90 percent on a per capita basis.

Over the past decade policy discussions about public access computing in libraries have focused on the role that these institutions play in bridging the digital divide. It is clear that bridging the digital divide and encouraging broadband adoption and use is an important role for the library. However the library is much more than a stop gap solution for those who don’t have access at home or work. 

About the Data
This newly released research brief relies on data compiled for U.S. Impact Study, which was conducted by the University of Washington in summer of 2009 and funded by IMLS and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The mixed method national survey was administered at the point-of-service in public libraries across the country via a web-based tool and as a national household survey. There were over 48,000 respondents to the study in the public data file. This data set provides information on the demographics of respondents and the nature of their public access computer use.

The brief also analyzed data from the Current Population Survey (CPS), a monthly survey of households conducted by the Bureau of Census for the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It provides a comprehensive body of data on the labor force, employment, unemployment, persons not in the labor force, hours of work, earnings, and other demographic and labor force characteristics. The 2009 computer use data was collected through a supplement to the CPS. The survey has included questions on Internet use since 1997.

About the Institute of Museum and Library Services
The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation's 123,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The Institute's mission is to create strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas. The Institute works at the national level and in coordination with state and local organizations to sustain heritage, culture, and knowledge; enhance learning and innovation; and support professional development. To learn more about the Institute, please visit