News Leadership 3.0

April 02, 2010

New report examines public library’s growing role as online civic hub

In the past year, about a third of Americans age 14 and over (about 77 million people) accessed the internet at a public library. US libraries and librarians are assuming a fast-growing role as a lifeline that connects people to jobs, news, education, services, health information, friends and family—and also community/civic participation.

A new report in the US IMPACT series of studies, How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at US Libraries, examines in detail how libraries are helping people meet a variety of online needs. It provides particularly intriguing insight into who’s using library internet to engage with community life, and how they’re doing it. Keeping up with the news is a big part of that picture…

By Amy Gahran

(This is part of a series of guest posts by Amy Gahran. Amy is looking how news organizations and other institutions can implement the findings of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, This joint project of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Aspen Institute Communications and Society program produced the report, “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age.” See all posts in this series.)

Who’s using library internet? According to the IMPACT study, one third of the 77 million library internet patrons “used library computers to learn about politics, news, and their community. Among these users, 81% reported keeping up with current events, 80% reported learning about candidates or issues, and 25% reported managing a club or nonprofit organization.”

What kinds of people are most likely to use library internet to participate in civic and community life?

  • Lower income. People who earn $66,000 or less for a family of four (three times the current US poverty line).
  • Ethnicity. Hispanics are most likely; then Native Americans, African Americans, and mixed-raced individuals. Whites are least likely.
  • Youth. Users aged 14-24 led the field.
  • Gender. Men were 20% more likely than women.
  • Education. People with at least some education beyond high school were most likely.

Findings on civic/community engagement: The IMPACT report defined online civic engagement as “individual and collective actions using online resources designed to identify and address issues of public concern, including efforts to work with others in a community to solve a problem or interact with the institutions of representative democracy.” 

I was intrigued that this study characterized keeping up with the news as primarily an activity associated with civic/community life—not as simply “media consumption,” as it often is in other studies about online use. This could indicate something unique about the perspective of library internet users, or simply the assumptions of the organizations behind the survey. (It was conducted by the University of Washington Information School and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. More about the survey.)

The report also examined how people use library internet access to engage communities. One specific activity discussed was organizing and managing community groups. Many survey participants claimed this activity is important to them. About 4 million people learned about starting an online presence for a club or community organization at the library— and 35% of these people actually started a club or association. Specific activities included:

  • Scheduling or reporting on meetings.
  • Promoting activities or attracting new members.
  • Seeking grants or funding.

The report noted, “57% of library internet users who looked for funding (about 1.2 million people) indicated that they had applied for funding—and 68% who  applied (over 813,000 people) actually received funding. This is concrete evidence that libraries are providing necessary tools and monetary support for people to engage in community activity.”

ACTION STEP: GO TO THE LIBRARY. Earlier, this blog post series recommended that news organizations partner more with public libraries, since libraries are natural sites of media literacy. But the IMPACT report indicates that libraries are also an increasing hub for civic and community “literacy,” too.

Therefore, journalists and others involved in ventures that provide news, information, and connection about civic and community life should probably start hanging out at the local library. Get online there, and start to assess who uses your local library’s internet access—and why.

More importantly, volunteer at your local library to assist library internet users. Most libraries are eager to work with volunteers. Once you get start working with the library and its patrons, learning their priorities and needs from the inside, you can forge relationships and spot opportunities for partnership and collaboration between the library and your local news or information venue.

Library volunteering also could be a channel to reach people who are not only underserved by local media and internet access, but also who are especially likely to be community leaders in those populations. The report noted: “In society at large, typically only a small percentage of the total population are community leaders and enablers. The characteristics of library internet users who are more likely to engage in [starting or managing online communities] ...suggest that the library is providing a way for emergent leaders to help their community take care of itself—which could in turn provide a safety net for people who might otherwise lack support.”

ACTION STEP: FUNDING COLLABORATION. Recommendation 7 of the Knight Commission report says:

“Fund and support public libraries and other community institutions as centers of digital and media training, especially for adults.”

..Like all public institutions, libraries are facing a severe funding crisis. They’re also eligible for many types of grants and other funding sources beyond tax revenue. Look for opportunities where partnering with a local library in your program and on your grant applications would make sense. If it’s a good fit, both parties—and the community—could benefit.

However, be sensitive to the unique concerns of libraries. They face specific legal and political issues, and librarians also have their own strong culture. So before approaching a library with a funding partnership idea, start volunteering first to build relationships, credibility, and knowledge.

Comments

Thanks for drawing attention to the importance of libraries not only as hubs of community, but vital to the success of media projects that aim to engage diverse communities. Even though many believe that “information wants to be free,” the real cost of being wired (or wirelessly connected) is very high. Public libraries are lifelines and librarians are stlll heroes, even in the digital age. Those of immersed in high tech culture, tweeting from our iPhones must always remember the digital divide and do our part to bridge it and protect the public good/public goods: public radio, public TV, public libraries, public parks, public access, etc.


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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

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