What Smartphone Internet Usage Means for Libraries

By Michelle Boule |

eBooks have been the hot topic in libraryland for a few months now and with good reason. It seems like every other day there is some new revelation that makes us either jump for joy or groan in agony. While these conversations and revelations have been happening, there has been another revolution underfoot.

The Pew, Internet, and American Life Project released a report last month on the usage of smartphones. We have known that smartphone ownership was increasing dramatically, and that use was up among minorities, and this report confirms the trends.

According to the study, 35% of adults own a smartphone with the numbers of ownership being slightly higher at 44% for African-Americans and Latinos. Of those owners, 68% said that they used their phone everyday to go online and 87% access email from their phone. I purchased a smartphone--a Droid 2 with an unlimited data plan--almost a year ago and I have to say I do not think I will ever willingly go back. My phone is the only reason I can keep up with my email. While usage did trend higher for non-whites, the other, unsurprising, group with high usage was the 19-29 crowd. 94% of this group goes online with their phone.

The numbers cited above confirm the trends we are seeing, but the trend that the report revealed that I think is even more important for libraries is that for some of the population, their phone is their Internet access.

Even among smartphone owners who use their phone as their main source of internet access, computer (i.e. laptop or desktop) ownership is quite prevalent. Indeed, fully 84% of these individuals also have a desktop or laptop computer at home. At the same time, a notably smaller number have access to high-speed internet service, as just over two-thirds of these users (68%) have broadband at home. This is slightly above the national broadband average (61% of all adults are broadband adopters), but still means that 32% of these “cell mostly” internet users lack traditional high-speed home access—even though they may go online from other locations outside of the home.

For libraries, these findings mean two very different things.

First, we have to make sure our web sites are compatible with mobile devices. Menus, searching, and browsing on your site should be easy to do on a smartphone. We already know that many people only see us through our online presence and now we know fair portion of them are coming to us on their phones. If you are also able to offer customized apps for both of the major platforms, that is even better.

Secondly, we can use this data to help our community and state leaders understand that for many people we are their only access to high speed internet. Again, this is something we knew was on the rise, because we see it everyday in the growing number of people coming to use the computers in our buildings. Now we have some research to back up what our gate counts have been revealing over the last few years. In addition, the three groups that are most likely to go mostly online with their phone are the under 30 crowd, non-white, or lower income groups. The lower income group especially needs the support given by the library for access to high speed internet.

I think libraries have jumped on some of the fun aspects of smartphone ownership, like QR codes, but the needs of some of our patrons are much, much more basic than that. I am not advocating that we stop doing the fun things with technology; we should have fun. In doing those fun things, we just have to remember to put effort into basic technology support as well. Some of our patrons need to be able to access us from their phones and need to be able to walk through our doors to use our high speed internet. Perhaps, while they visit us online or in person, we can show them something else amazing that we can do for them.

These findings are important to us as library leaders because they offer hard numbers that we can take in hands to our leaders in communities where our budgets, our hours of operations, and our staff numbers are being threatened. The argument should be restated with whatever angle works. We are not just books. We are access to information and a community with access is a better community overall.