Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

More Computers?

A new study of public libraries by the Washington Eye School finds that 32% of the United States population uses the Internet at public libraries, and that 44% of people from households below the poverty line do. Unsurprisingly for a study funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, it recommends more computers in public libraries.

But the study also notes that 69% of the U.S. population uses libraries, though it does nothing with that fact. However, we can conclude that while most Americans use libraries, most of them do not use library computers. Most library users don’t use library computers, either.

The study calls for more state and local funding for computers and bandwidth in libraries, but what about all the library users who don’t use the computers at all? What are they doing, and why not call for more funding for that? Why not instead note that most people aren’t using the computers that are there now.

I’m not necessarily against more funding for library computers and bandwidth, though I don’t see more coming anytime soon. The 44% of poor Americans using those computers aren’t the ones who will be vigorously fighting any tax increases.

However, I don’t think librarians should go crazy over a library study funded by the Gates Foundation and conducted by a school too hip to have the word library in its name.

What else are the majority of library users who don’t use the library computers doing at the library? Over half of Americans using libraries aren’t using the computers, so they must be doing something. Presumably, some of those 32% of Americans using the computers are also doing something else at the library that doesn’t involve computers. What are they all doing and why aren’t we talking about that?

It’s probably not hard to guess what most of them are doing. Reading books, finding movies and music, going to storytimes, attending public meetings, doing homework, and all the usual boring things that people do in libraries. I’m too lazy to do any actual research and Chip is away at the moment, but I’d bet that at least half of library users check out books. Wouldn’t it be great if we had a study arguing that since so many people check out books we should have more public funding for books?

Oh, I know, more funding for books isn’t sexy. No one from the Eye School cares about books. And it’s not going to do anything to bridge the digital divide, and that’s all important.

Except it’s not. The digital divide is undoubtedly important, but there’s another divide that’s even more important: the literacy divide. The poor need computers, but it’s more important that they learn how to read. 44% of poor Americans use public libraries. Oddly enough, that’s the same percentage of children in Detroit who never graduate from high school.

More computers in libraries would be great, but at the moment libraries are firing librarians and cutting back hours. At the rate L.A. is going, there won’t even be any libraries or librarians there pretty soon. There are people who think librarians don’t do anything and that all people need are computers. Those people are idiots, of course, but that’s not important.

What’s important is that librarians focus on all the things libraries do for people that don’t involve plugging in more computers, because if they can’t convince the public of that then we’ll eventually have many fewer librarians and libraries, and we still won’t have more computers.



  1. Grouchy Marx says:

    All these people are at the library to get the socialist message.

    The revolution is coming.

    Which side are you on?

  2. Geoffrey says:

    The AL is making a false dichotomy here, implying that pushing for more computers in libraries will take away from funding for other library resources. Instead, if libraries work hard to bridge the digital divide (and, yes, that is important — not all of us have Chip around to read to us and feed us martinis all day), this will offer one more venue for bridging the literacy divide that the AL rightly decries in this post. I don’t think we’re going to see huge sums of money from the Gates Foundation for new books, since that isn’t really their mission, but it would be shortsighted to ignore the need for more computers in libraries just because libraries have other needs as well. Dear AL, you are usually snarky, often right, and sometimes only tilting snarkily at windmills. In this case, it is the last, i fear.

  3. At many cities in the public library the book budget is being ignored. Wheres the cry for materials budgets of a few years ago much less a call to arms? I think this column makes a good point.

  4. ChickenLittle says:

    This study is flawed! There is no way that 69% of Americans are library users! They may be getting confused between “cardholders” and “users”. I would agree that possibly 69% of Americans hold a library card, but usage rates are approximately 10-15% of cardholders, even lower in some states where I have worked. I looked at the research in this report and am still shaking my head….under “Research Methods” they say they got their sample size from “A dual-frame random digit dialing telephone survey and a cell phone sample was used to interview 1,131 public access technology users and 2,045 non-users”…..WHAT?? Does that mean you only interviewed library users and not the general public? The web survey results were “conducted through 401 public libraries across the country”….also is this library users or the general public?? We need to be very careful about the “numbers” we put out regarding libraries and our profession. Inflating statistics will sooner or later come back to haunt us!

  5. flalibrarylady says:

    One of the reasons that only 32% of the population uses computers at public libraries is that most libraries don’t have nearly enough computers and the waiting list to use the computers is much longer than people want to deal with. So they don’t. If libraries had more computers, the percentage of users would be much higher!

  6. Post Postmodern Librarian says:

    This is “great” research if you support the FCC’s latest plans to increase the Digital Infrastructure. Remember libraries are to play a key role in forming the new network. This supports that. So if your a rural or over crowed urban library this is a good thing. Increased access does not equal increase literacy of any type. Let the Feds worry about the materials we should be worried about what we do with them once we get them. Should we shift monies from the technology budget to materials budget? What type of classes should we offer to improve any type of literacy? Will people really care? Lots of questions out there

  7. special librarian says:

    Fantastic use of informal logic Geoffrey. The book will not become a legacy device anytime soon, but to not place enough emphasis on e-readers and digital library technologies could spell doom for some libraries. For another media analogy the radio has not been made obsolescent by the television. However I would not want to be the retailer refusing to sell the TV. The real challenges for many libraries is to get technical services up to speed with meeting new digital needs. The methodologies for library research are usually pathetic and sometimes do great harm to the profession. But what I think is clear is that people are using both computers and books at local libraries. I am certain many patrons would love to check out an e-reader (let’s hope drm free).

  8. I just know that our 40 computers are utilized all day, and usually there’s a waiting list. But honestly, I don’t know where we’d put more computers – we’d have to take out the reference stacks, which hardly ever get used… People are waiting at the doors in the Morning and practically run to the public computers. I’m not kidding.

  9. SpongeBob Librarypants says:

    Damned Washington Eye School. What makes those opthamologists think they know so much about libraries?

    Is that where Bill Gates gets his glasses?

  10. wyoming says:

    What else are the majority of library users who don’t use the library computers doing at the library?–probably just using the public bathroom!

  11. LibraryDolt says:

    My two cents:
    At the Public Library I work in most of the trafic is internet usage. In fact if the internet is down it is dead. And we are considered a rural area, so I think the findings are true.

  12. Thats what we thought too. Then we actually checked on library card uses for computers, for books and for both. It was 65% for books only, 35% for computers only, 15% used their card for both. This was for a several month period.

    It just seems theres less book users because book users come, look for their book and then leave. They don’t hang around for hours on the computer. They aren’t there every ^%$ second you look around.

    Not that I have a preference for a particular patron group.

    Maybe there should be a statistic for patron time in the library. Time under load or such.

  13. What?!?! You don’t limit your patron’s computer time? They have two 45-min sessions at our library, but if all the PC’s are in use, they don’t get their 2nd session until another PC becomes available.

  14. Fancy Nancy says:

    Bob – we’ve already gotten rid of our reference section to make room for more computers. Next up: getting rid of the reference desk to make room for a coffee station.

  15. Jonathan says:

    For those who are interested in a space-saving solution to putting more computers in libraries, check out which sells, leases and even (gasp!) runs split-revenue concession programs for laptop dispensing in public libraries.

    Mix-n-Match stations include:
    4-Laptop Host Stations
    6-Netbook Host Stations
    8-Laptop Companion Stations
    12-Netbook Companion Stations


  16. vv.richard6 says:

  17. Bill Gates says:

    Actually I have met Bill numerous times and he is a decent guy but does have a swelled head. It would be nice if the computers we already had worked effectively but that is probably asking to much. The public in my library are depressing savages that are only interested in checking out the most current videos they can find. The only use they have for a computer is to check Youtube, their email, or some porn site. What a waste of $$$$! Love and peace! XXXX/OOOO
    Carl Marx

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