INTERNET ACCESS IN PUBLIC LIBRARIES
Niels Ole Pors, Regional Editor Europe
A new library act has just passed the Danish Parliament this spring. It introduces the term of extended library services and implies that libraries have an obligation to give access to a multitude of products like videos, music and electronic services like the Internet. This part of Library Link has, of course, a special interest in Internet and the information that is embedded there.
As more public libraries around the world make Internet access a part of standard service to their users, we can guess that the profile of the user population, including their information seeking behaviour, will change substantially.
Investigations into the public’s use of libraries with Internet access will become part of normal user studies. An interesting piece of research in this area has just come to my attention. It is interesting because of the topic and because it is published in one of the few research-oriented and peer-reviewed electronic journals in our field - Information Research: An International Electronic Journal http://www.shef.ac.uk/~is/publications/infres/irccont.html. In this paper (‘Public Use of the Internet at Chester Library, UK’) the researchers, Katherine Turner and Margaret Kendall, investigate public use of Internet services at Chester Public Library, using data from 180 questionnaires and nine interviews. The aim of the research was to identify the demographic characteristics of users and to investigate for which purposes the Internet was used. Also, user skills and their evaluation of the usefulness of the Internet were surveyed.
Some of the findings of the study are quite interesting. Over 50 per cent of the users are not normal library cardholders, and 25 per cent of the Internet users were from outside Britain. The Internet is used for the following purposes: e-mail (55 per cent), searching for specific information (36 per cent), using specific Web sites (27 per cent). Nearly 60 per cent of the users have only Internet access as their purpose when they visit Chester Library. This is an extremely interesting figure, because until now user studies have revealed some multi-dimensionality in purpose when visiting a public library. The interviews show that people prefer to seek information in libraries because the atmosphere is much quieter than one experiences in a cyber café. The interviews also point to the fact that it is possible to get help in information seeking at the library.
The fact that many people use the library for the sole purpose of Internet access is extremely important. From this one might postulate that new user groups are coming to the library. It points further to the fact that Internet access could be a rather competitive element when a city or a re-gion tries to attract tourists. It is, of course, difficult to generalise on the basis of one piece of research. It has to be duplicated elsewhere. But the paper raises interesting questions that all librarians have to ponder:
- What effect will charging have on people’s use in libraries?
- What will a new user group look like in terms of demographics and in-formation needs?
- Will a potential new user group need the traditional services a library can offer?
- To what degree will Internet users need guidance or education in search-ing the Internet?
- Should some of the services on the internet, e.g. e-mail, be excluded as part of the services the library offer?