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Gates foundation survey shows libraries key to getting low-income populations online

One-third of all Americans over the age of 14 have used a public library to access the Internet during the past year, according to a study released Thursday by the University of Washington and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Of the 77 mililon people who visit libraries to get on the Web, a large portion are low-income individuals looking for jobs and doing homework at computer centers and using wireless network connections.

The survey comes amid a growing recognition by the federal government that libraries and other community centers represent a potential solution to getting more people connected to high-speed Internet services. As part of its national broadband plan released last week, The Federal Communications Commission proposed bringing ultra fast 1 gigabit connections to libraries and other community institutions through federal grants and subsidies.

“There is no ambiguity in these numbers. Millions of people see libraries as an essential tool to connect them to information, knowledge, and opportunities,” said Marsha Semmel, acting director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services, which also funded the study. “Policy makers must fully recognize and support the role libraries are playing in workforce development, education, health and wellness, and the delivery of government services.”

And amid the recession, many of the 50,000 people surveyed said they used the Internet to find work, apply for college, get public benefits and look up medical information.

Overall, 44 percent of people living below the federal poverty line used computers and the Internet at their public libraries, according to the study.

But teenagers were the biggest users – half of those surveyed who used a library computer were between the ages of 14 and 18. And many of those young people said they used the Internet as they did their homework.

Interestingly, the majority of library Internet users surveyed said they also have a connection at home. But they said they went to their public libraries because the Internet connections were faster and they could ask a librarian to help with the technology.

There are an estimated 16,000 public libraries in the United States and most of them offer Internet access. That’s a sharp increase from 1996, when a little over one-quarter of public libraries offered free access to computers and the Internet.

Still, one-third of libraries say their technology is inadequate and that they aren’t able to meet demand from users.

“Library technology services have created opportunity for millions of Americans, but public libraries struggle to replace aging computer workstations and increase the speed of their Internet connections,” said Allan Golston, president of the United States Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “This study highlights what is at risk, particularly for low-income individuals who heavily rely on the public library for their technology, if future public and private investment in public libraries doesn’t keep pace with demand.”

By Cecilia Kang  |  March 25, 2010; 12:01 AM ET
Categories:  Broadband , FCC  
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Allan Golston, president of the United States Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “This study highlights what is at risk, particularly for low-income individuals who heavily rely on the public library for their technology, if future public and private investment in public libraries doesn’t keep pace with demand.”

LOL that’s funny chuckles but it's not our problem. I'm so sick of LIB id10t's like this acting as if those of us who worked to get what we have we're some how born with a silver spoon in our mouths and those who chose NOT to work and have nothing should get MORE HELP/ BS cut them off. It’s time to hold these people accountable and if they can’t play ball then F’em.

Posted by: askgees | March 25, 2010 12:46 PM | Report abuse

The public library system is an important tool to help provide community identity and provides an important source of continuing education. Most public libraries in addition to internet services also offer DVD and audio book rentals, provide community outreach programs, offer seminars and clinics for small businesses and individuals, offer sources for tax return forms and other community or government specific activities. The effort to bring the internet to all U.S. citizens may ultimately prove as significant to our economic future as the Roosevelt project to create a nation-wide electrical grid. Economists have determined that these projects, similarly to Lincoln’s transcontinental railroad and the Eisenhower highway system are examples of public investments that created the American Economic miracle.

As it was then, it is the duty of our leaders to ignore the ranting of the “let them eat cake” crowd so the economic success story of America can continue.

Posted by: NewThoughts | March 25, 2010 3:34 PM | Report abuse

If Bill Gates is concerned about computer and internet access at public libraries, he has more than enough money to help them out.

Hey, Bill, how about a few of your billions for this nation's libraries?

Posted by: taskforceken | March 25, 2010 4:17 PM | Report abuse


Please don't assume everyone who is poorer than most is there because they are lazy.

The Gates and other spectacularly weathy people can help by supporting libraries with funds and equipment. The people using the equipment are trying to help themselves find a better life.

If you want to see fewer "poor" people, then doesn't that make sense?

Posted by: veerle1 | March 25, 2010 4:47 PM | Report abuse

Veerle1, there's no point in responding to askgees, who recently suggested that the country would be better off if President Obama were to be assassinated.

Posted by: news5 | March 25, 2010 5:15 PM | Report abuse



Posted by: veerle1 | March 25, 2010 6:44 PM | Report abuse

Actually the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation DOES provide computer stations to libraries! I've used them when I've been on vacation.

Posted by: dottie_b | March 25, 2010 8:36 PM | Report abuse

I remember going to the library in Ocean City a few years ago because I had to post for an online course during a family vacation. There were long lines for Internet access at the public library at the beach!

The Gates foundation is right about the challenges faced by public libraries in keeping up with demand. Public libraries offer Wi-Fi ... I expect to soon begin noticing IPads all over my local public libraries. It's not just the poor who will increasingly take advantage of these "free services."

Posted by: dannykurland1 | March 25, 2010 10:25 PM | Report abuse

Then local governments need to stop cutting funding from libraries during recessions.

Posted by: sarahabc | March 25, 2010 10:54 PM | Report abuse

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