Released: December 30, 2007

Information Searches That Solve Problems


Executive Summary

This report emerges from a national survey that looks at how people use a variety of information sources to help them address some common problems that could be related in some way to government agencies and programs. The problems about which we queried included: dealing with a serious illness or health concern; making a decision about school enrollment, financing school, or upgrading work skills; dealing with a tax matter; changing a job or starting a business; and getting information about major programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. The survey’s major findings:

Major Questions and Findings

Americans deal with a complex array of issues and problems in their everyday lives –from health care to education to employment to retirement. Many of these problems require negotiating a bewildering bunch of information sources. This report focuses on some common problems that have connections to government agencies and programs.

We examine how people search for information when they face these problems and how they act on that information. Beyond that, we pay particular attention to the 36% of Americans who have limited access to the internet. They either do not have any internet access at all (23% of Americans), or they have no broadband at home or at work (another 13% of Americans). This research was particularly oriented towards helping librarians and government officials learn how their institutions currently serve this “low internet access” population. In all, 2,796 American adults were surveyed about these issues, and an oversample of 733 “low internet access” respondents is part of the survey. The overall sample has a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points for the whole sample and 3 points for the low-access sample.



Question 1: What sources of information do people consult when they need to address problems?

Major finding: More people turned to the internet than any other source of information and support, including experts, family members, government agencies, or libraries.


Respondents were asked whether they had encountered 10 possible problems in the previous two years, all of which had a potential connection to dealing with the government or seeking government information. The problems were: 1) dealing with a serious illness or health concern; 2) making a decision about school enrollment, financing school, or upgrading work skills; 3) dealing with a tax matter; 4) changing a job or starting a business; 5) getting information about Medicare, Medicaid, or food stamps; 6) getting information about Social Security or military benefits; 7) getting information about voter registration or a government policy; 8 ) seeking help on a local government matter such as a traffic problem or schools; 9) becoming involved in a legal matter; and 10) becoming a citizen or helping another person with an immigration matter.

Respondents often had faced multiple problems so they were instructed to focus on the most recent episode they had experienced on the list. They were then asked where they went for help and the internet topped the list:



Question 2 : Which sources of information yield the most successful outcomes in these problem-solving searches?

Major finding : Most people were successful in getting information to help them address a problem no matter what channel they chose and no matter what problem they faced. [A table of all results on success appears on page 15 of the main report.]


The nature of the problem being solved did not much affect successful outcomes. Both simple and complex problems yielded similar results. The range for the very successful searches ran from 65% for those trying to get further educational help to 57% of those dealing with a health problem. All others fell in between.



Question 3: Do public libraries play special roles in people’s lives as they try to solve problems?

Major finding: Those who do turn to libraries have success, and they appreciate all the resources available at libraries, especially access to computers and the internet. And those in Generation Y (age 18-30) were the most likely to turn to libraries for problem-solving information.


Faced with a problem in the past two years that they needed to address, about one in eight adults (13%) say they turned to their local public library for help and information. Here’s why:

The problem that was most likely to be cited by those who went to libraries related to education – either making a decision about a school, getting more training, or finding financial resources. That reason was cited by 20% of the adults who went to libraries for help.

Asked whether they would go to a library in the future to help them solve problems, 40% of Gen Y said it was likely they would go, compared with 20% of those over age 30.



Question 4: Who uses libraries, not just for problem solving, but for all purposes?

Major finding : 53% of American adults report going to a local public library in the past 12 months. The profile of library users shows an economically upscale, information hungry clientele who use the library to enhance their already-rich information world. Gen Y again leads the pack again.


Public library patrons are generally younger adults, those with higher income and education levels, and those who are internet users. Parents with minor children living at home are very likely to be patrons. There are no significant differences in library usage by race and ethnicity.



Question 5: How many people have encounters with government, whether to solve problems or address other matters?

Major finding: More than half of Americans contacted various branches of government in the past year. The most common method of contact was visiting a government office, followed by phoning a government agency.


Some 58% of Americans said they contacted any branch of government in the past year. Those who had contacted government were asked how they made the connection:

Contact with the government is made across various levels of administration and not concentrated at one level. Twenty-seven percent of those who had contacted government in the previous year said they contacted local government, and the same percentage said they contacted state government. Slightly fewer, 23%, said they contacted the federal government.  And 12% said they reached out to several different levels of government.



Question 6: If they had a choice, how would people prefer to interact with government?

Major finding: People’s preferences for dealing with government are driven by the nature of the problem they are trying to address – sometimes the internet is preferred; sometimes the phone; sometimes other kinds of contact such as face-to-face visits. [A full table of answers to the question on preferences is on page 9 of the main report.]


We asked respondents about six different kinds of problems or types of encounters they might have with government and how they would prefer to interact with officials if those problems emerged in their lives. It turns out that the path people would like to use depends on the kind of problem they are addressing.


Question 7 : As they deal with problems, do people with limited or no access to the internet have different needs and search strategies than those who have broadband connections?

Major finding: Those in the low-access population – the 36% of adults who do not use the internet or only have dial-up connections – face health problems and matters related to government benefits at the same rate as those with high-access. But they do not face most other problems at the same level as those with high-access. The internet is not a factor in their searches and they rely more on television and radio than the high-access group. And they are less successful than those with high-access in getting the material they need.  


Those in the low-access group are less likely to have interacted with government in the previous year or visited a library. Those with low-access are just as likely as those with high-access to have faced a health problem, or sought information about major government aid programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. But they are much less likely than those who have high-access to say they had job-related matters enter their lives, or face an education-related problem, or deal with a tax question, or handle an immigration matter, or seek information about a local government concern.  They are more likely than high-access users to say they consulted TV and radio as sources of information.

Those in the low-access cohort are less likely to report being very successful in their searches for help than those than those with high-access (54% v 63%). Broken down further within the low-access group, 61% of those with dial-up internet access said they were very successful, compared with 50% of those with no access at all.



Question 8 : Are privacy concerns a hindrance to use of government agencies, libraries, and the internet in problem solving?

Major finding : About a fifth of Americans with problems to address said they were concerned about privacy disclosures as they hunted for information. These concerns influenced the method they ultimately chose for gathering information, and they were somewhat more pronounced for the low-access group.


Some 19% of those who faced problems said that the fear of the disclosure of personal information played at least some role in the path they chose toward information or help. Those in the low-access group were somewhat more concerned than others.



Question 9 : How would people like to have access to government documents?

Major finding : A plurality of Americans interviewed said that in the future, they would prefer to access government documents via the internet, but significant numbers said they would still prefer to get the printed form of government publications by mail or from government offices and libraries.


The U.S. Government Printing Office provides citizens with documents in both print and digital forms and distributes them in many different ways. Americans have an appetite for access documents through all available options: Two in five Americans (40%) said they would prefer to get the government document on the internet, compared with 31% who would prefer it be sent via the mail. One in five (19%) would prefer to pick up the document at a government office and 6% said they would go to the local public library.

The low-access group more strongly favors print publications delivered in the traditional way: 46% would like the document by mail, 25% from the government office, 15% on the internet and 8% at the library.





About the Library Research Center, Graduate School for Library and Information Science, University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign: The Graduate School of Library and Information Science is the top-ranked such school in the United States, according to U.S. News and World Report (2006).  Established in 1961 to provide statistical support for state and public libraries, the Library Research Center focuses on library trends, community analyses for libraries and policy outcomes.  Its clients include members of the publishing industry, library vendors, library associations, individual libraries, government agencies, foundation and others. Lauren C. Teffeau and Megan Mustafoff were especially helpful in development of this grant, survey, and report.  Its website:

About the Pew Internet & American Life Project: The Project produces reports that explore the social impact of the internet on families, communities, work and home, daily life, education, health care, and civic and political life.  Support for the project is provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts. The project is an initiative of the Pew Research Center. The project’s website: Amy Tracy Wells was especially helpful in analyzing data and helping prepare the report.

About Princeton Survey Research Associates International: PSRAI conducted the survey that is covered in this report. It is an independent research company specializing in social and policy work. The firm designs, conducts, and analyzes surveys worldwide. Its expertise also includes qualitative research and content analysis. With offices in Princeton, N.J. and Washington, D.C., PSRA serves the needs of clients around the nation and the world. The firm can be reached at 911 Commons Way, Princeton, NJ 08540, by telephone at 609-924-9204, by fax at 609-924-7499, or by email at Jonathan Best, Julie Gasior, Jennifer Su and Brian Kenney were critical to the collection and analysis of the survey.

About the Institute for Museum and Library Services: Funding for this survey and report came from the IMLS under grant award number LG-06-05-0398-05. The IMLS is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s 122,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The Institute’s mission is to create strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas. The Institute works at the national level and in coordination with state and local organizations to sustain heritage, culture, and knowledge; enhance learning and innovation; and support professional development. Its website is: