Digital Reference Services for Low-Income People



Results from Studies

Trends in Information Seeking Behavior

Digital Reference Services

Barriers to Service





Libraries have a responsibility to serve all members of society, and as such should make a special effort to serve the traditionally underserved and disadvantaged. As the American Library Association states in its policy regarding Library Services to the Poor, “it is crucial that libraries recognize their role in enabling poor people to participate fully in a democratic society, by utilizing a wide variety of available resources and strategies” (American Library Association). As information is increasingly being made available in digital formats, access to and an understanding of digital technologies is becoming progressively important in day-to-day life. Low-income individuals and families often cannot afford to own computers, and often experience various barriers to access, including access to digital formats. The term digital divide is often used to describe the disparity between those who have access to modern information technology, and those who do not have access. Though low-income people fall into the have-not category, their information needs will not be solved solely by providing access to modern information technology, because there are more levels of barriers than access alone.

In the development and actualization of every type of library service, those who work in a library must first consider the needs of their users. Information needs and information seeking behaviors are extremely varied throughout the human population, and should always be considered and examined when making decisions regarding a specific population.

This paper brings together a variety of studies of the information seeking behaviors of low-income people, and makes suggestions regarding appropriate digital reference services. It is not possible to completely understand all low-income people through the studies done in the past, because each situation produces different experiences, and low-income people cannot be discussed as a single group. However, some steps can be made towards understanding trends from various studies, and general recommendations can be developed.


This website was created by Tamara Guillaume as a requirement for graduation from the Master of Library and Information Studies program at the University of Alberta. The paper was originally prepared for LIS 534 (Digital Reference) in April of 2006.