Access to information and socio-economic status

In Online Information, Ebooks, and Moral Panic, Rick Anderson asks:

What percentage of poor children has access to a decent public library collection, as compared to the percentage that has access to the Internet?

It is a very important question and gets at the kind of information librarians need as we make decisions about how to provide the best possible access to information to the widest possible set of people.

Some time ago, I joked on twitter “Never ask a librarian a hypothetical question … you are likely to get a real answer … with citations.” I guess I should amend that to “Never ask a hypothetical question on a library blog … you’re likely to get a real answer …with data.”

So yes, let’s see if we can answer that question. First, we need to operationalize our concepts in ways that render them measurable. Easier said than done, it turns out; but let’s give it a go.

If the point of the question is to determine whether an ebook or other online information is more accessible to low-income patrons than print, then I think it is fair to operationalize “access to the Internet” as “access to the Internet at home”. In my opinion that is a rather conservative measure of access to the Internet, since many people (especially kids) in low-income families share computers, making it more difficult to read long-form information than for those who own their own computer or e-reader. But let’s go with “access to the Internet at home” as our measure of access to e-books and other online information.

According to a June 2013 report prepared by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the Economics and Statistics Administration, and the US Department of Commerce: “Just under half (46 percent) of households with incomes of less than $25,000 access the Internet at home.”

Operationalizing “access to a decent public library collection” is even more difficult. In theory, everyone has access to public libraries, right? But meaningful access really means a library that can be accessed via a reasonable commute – preferably walking or safe, affordable public transportation. Good luck finding a measure of that. On the other hand, it seems safe to assume that visiting a public library indicates access to a public library. In fact, using “visited a public library” as a measure of access is likely to grossly underestimate access — surely we can agree that more people have access to a public library than actually visits one, right? But let’s play it safe and go with actually visiting a public library as our measure of “access to a public library”.

Since I couldn’t find any articles or reports containing statistics about public library access or use, I decided to use the SDA: Survey Documentation and Analysis site from UC Berkeley to do some quick and dirty analysis of the General Social Survey data. A quick cross-tab tells us that in 2008 65% of respondents in households with household incomes under $25,000/year visited a public library at least once in the past year. In 2012, 64% of such respondents visited a public library at least once. I used the VISLIB variable (asked in 2008 & 2012 only) and the INCOME variable, recoding them both into dichotomous variables for simplicity’s sake. Please feel free to do your own analysis.

“What percentage of poor children has access to a decent public library collection?”
At least 65%.
“…as compared to the percentage that has access to the Internet?”
No more than 46%.

Online information is less accessible than printed information in a public library to the 54% of poor kids who do not have home internet access. Sure, those kids can access online information at their public library, but unlike the printed books, they can’t check that online information out and take it home with them. Any assertion that online information is radically more accessible than print ignores the reality that online information is radically inaccessible to over half of our poorest citizens. Note also that only 57% of African-American households and 58% of Hispanic households have home internet access (pg. 26, Exploring the Digital Divide), so ebooks and other online information is pretty inaccessible to over 40% of African-Americans & Hispanics too.

Another question Anderson poses is “If you really want to get a book into the hands of a maximum-possible number of poor kids, is encoding it into a physical document (rather than, say, making it available via cellphone) really the best way to do it?”

Considering that even among low-income individuals who own a cell phone, only 55% of them use their phones to go online (Cell Internet Use 2013, from Pew), making information available via cellphone may not get that info into more poor kids’ hands than having it available in a public library (where 65% of low-income kids will visit in a year).

Another bit of data from the Pew Internet report on e-book reading is suggestive of whether print books or ebooks are more accessible to poor kids. According to the Pew data, 19% of people with household incomes below $30,000/year read at least 1 ebook in 2012, compared to 44% at the highest income levels. E-book reading is growing across all income categories, but at a much slower rate among low-income individuals than among higher-income readers.

The difference in reading between income levels shrinks considerably when you look at reading on all platforms (print and electronic), with 66% of those in the lowest income bracket reading at least 1 book, compared to 84% in the highest income bracket. Moreover, there is little difference between the mean number of books read by low-income readers (14), and the mean number read by high-income readers (15). Actual behavior would seem to indicate that being in a low-income household has a stronger negative impact on ebook reading than on reading across all platforms.

I long for the day when technology really does fulfill the promise of enabling equal access to all kinds of information for all kinds of people. But the data I can find sure seem to indicate that we simply are not there yet, and I believe that “solutions” that ignore that reality are likely to increase rather than mitigate current inequalities.

Final note: I would love to be wrong about this. If anyone has different data and/or does a more careful analysis of the GSS data and proves me wrong, bring it.

6 Responses to “Access to information and socio-economic status”

  1. 1 Merrilee Proffitt September 27, 2013 at 10:46 am

    Rick and Chris, I suggest you get in touch with my colleagues at WebJunction — as part of their work in advocating for libraries they have a wealth of information on the digital divide and access to technology and the role that libraries play or stand to play in that. They’ve also been taking a look at ebook issues. I think Kendra Morgan would be a good person to start with!


  2. 3 Rick Anderson September 27, 2013 at 5:30 am

    Chris, thanks for crunching these numbers; it must have represented quite a bit of work.

    This piece of data: “65% of respondents in households visited a public library at least once in the past year” – which I think is central to your argument – prompts a couple of questions:

    1. We’ve been talking about access for low-income children, not for low-income households. If the household has a computer with internet access, then it’s reasonable to assume the children in that household have internet access. But when 65% of respondents from these households report a visit to the library, it doesn’t follow that all of those visits were made with or by children. This matters because adults have more independence of movement outside the home than children do (they can drive, they’re more likely to be able to walk long distances or take the bus unaccompanied, etc.), which means that the percentage of low-income children who visited a library during the period reported is almost certainly going to be a subset of the 65% of households that visited the library. In other words, a library that is easily accessible to an adult is not equally accessible to a child from the same household. So my question is: do the data you examined allow you to see how many of the reported library visits involved children?

    2. I’m also interested in the phrase “at least once.” As you know, the words “at least” can hide an enormous amount of meaningful variance. Is it possible to see how many of those 65% who visited the library at least once in the year visited it only once? That number matters because if a respondent visited the library only once in a year, that suggests the library may not be easily accessible to the respondent – and unless the same respondent accessed the internet less than once during the same year (whether from home or elsewhere), then it seems hard to argue from one library visit that the library is more easily accessible to him or her than the internet is.

    Last point: I agree with you that technology has not yet “fulfill(ed) the promise of enabling equal access to all kinds of information for all kinds of people.” But that’s not what we’re arguing about. We’re arguing over a much less grandiose proposition: that the internet has surpassed the ability of print to provide easy access to books for low-income children.


    • 4 Chris Bourg September 27, 2013 at 3:03 pm

      I pulled most of this together in the dribs and drabs of time between meetings. All in all, it probably represents about 3-4 hours of work, including writing it up. Worth it though, as I strongly believe that when we make quantitative assumptions we ought to perform some due diligence around attempting to find the data to support those assumptions.
      Note that the data I examined is available to everyone – everyone with internet access, that is – so I would encourage you to offer an alternate analysis of it. And yes, if you click on the link provided you will see that the VISLIB variable does count number of visits to a library.

      I guess we will just have to agree to disagree though, on the interpretation of the data. I believe that living in a household where at least 1 person actually visited a library represents better access to a library than living in a house without internet access represents access to the internet.

      Perhaps though we could agree on this:
      In addition to providing information in multiple formats, librarians and our professional organizations ought to be at the forefront of efforts to advocate for programs that provide free high speed internet to homes in low-income communities.


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