A 1996 survey by the Benton Foundation13 found that the youngest adult Americans, those age 18-24 years, were the least supportive of libraries and also saw libraries as becoming less important in future. In a turn around today, however, the youngest adults form a key group of library users. And many librarians believe that retaining their interest will be critical to the future of public libraries. Some libraries, for example, have accounts and characters in computer games like Second Life. Others answer reference questions on My Space.
In the Benton survey the public saw libraries as appropriate for low-income low-access individuals. Libraries operated on the same idea, focusing for over a decade on bridging the “digital divide”—providing computer access and computer training to people who do not have it.
Findings from this survey show that Americans on both sides of the digital divide – those with both low-access and high-access to computing — are equally likely to use the public library for information that helps them address matters and solve problems in their lives – especially those matters that lie in some way within the government domain.
Regardless of income, African-Americans are particularly interested in computer use at libraries. And African-Americans and Latinos are more likely than whites to say they will go to the public library should they encounter a similar problem in the future. At the same time, Latinos were the most likely to report that they chose not to use libraries when they were looking for information on a specific problem.
Assistance in finding information is very important, particularly for older Americans. Users who received assistance were more likely to have been successful in finding the information they needed. At least one group of library users is identified as having a specific problem: it is possible that older library users from minority groups are frustrated or confused in searching for government information at the library. This group is also less likely to say they would go back to a library to solve a problem if it comes up again.
Privacy concerns seem to be on the minds of library users, possibly in part because of awareness raised from recent public debate about library records under the USA PATRIOT Act. Almost a quarter of Americans have expressed privacy concerns about using the public library. This is a particularly thorny problem for libraries, as two of the key drivers in library use are around matters related to health and education, both of which involve referring to a considerable amount of personal information.
One paradox in the survey results is this: While libraries have worked to become the place to go for those who cannot afford a computer or an internet connection, people with high access are equally likely to turn to libraries for government information as those with low access. Instead of the internet making libraries less relevant, internet use seems to create an information hunger that libraries help satisfy.
But many more people consider going to libraries than actually do. This suggests that libraries should try to untangle the complex web of reasons why different groups of people – even those who might profit most from using the library – don’t in fact use the library, and in some cases, actually shun using it. The reasons are likely to challenge many assumptions about the digital divide.