TALLAHASSEE, FL—A national report released today reveals that 99 percent of all U.S. public libraries provide free public access to computers wired to the Internet, compared to 25 percent 10 years ago. Librarians overwhelmingly (71 percent) report that the most important impact of this service is providing Internet access to those who otherwise would not have it. This is the first time that impact has been quantified on a national scale.
The report also reveals that despite increased demand for library computers, libraries typically have not seen a corresponding increase in budgets and many are challenged to provide enough computers or fast-enough connection speeds to meet demand.
The study, “Public Libraries and the Internet 2006,” was conducted by the Information Use Management and Policy Institute at Florida State University (FSU) and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the American Library Association.
“Libraries do an incredible job of connecting people with technology, but demand for this service is significantly outpacing libraries’ capacity to make necessary upgrades, purchases, and repairs,” said John Bertot, Florida State University professor and author of the report.
Appolonia Tovar, 17, does not have Internet access at home and relies on the computers at the Daniel Ruiz Branch of the Austin, Texas, Public Library.
"I spend most of my time each weekday at the library. My homework always consists of either research or typing an essay. Now that I'm a senior in high school, I am constantly online at the library researching colleges, scholarships, and even signing up for tests like the ACT,” Tovar said.
Austin Public Library’s Wired for Youth program provides computers and Internet access, classes, and mentorship for young people ages 8 - 17 from disadvantaged communities and teaches them how to use technology as a way of preparing for their future.
The Wired for Youth program is one example of how public libraries are thriving in the digital age. Yet nearly half (45 percent) of U.S. public libraries report no increase or a drop in program funding for 2006. With inflation, increased personnel and benefits costs, and a greater demand for technology enhancements, flat funding in many cases amounts to budget cuts which directly affect the quality of library services including the number of hours a library is open.
“If libraries can’t keep up with demand or make technological advancements, people who rely on the library for computer access will be increasingly disadvantaged and a new divide will emerge,” said Jill Nishi, manager of the U.S. Libraries initiative at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “It’s up to communities and library leaders to ensure that this inequity does not occur, and that libraries can provide quality technology services for generations to come.”
“Public Libraries and the Internet 2006” indicates that more people are relying on library computers to find government services which increasingly are more available online. Librarians reported that senior citizens facing the 2006 deadline to enroll in the Medicare prescription drug program in 2006 relied on library staff and library computers to research programs and complete online enrollment forms.
In Florida, people rely on library computers to apply for food stamps. There are no longer any regional offices in Florida where families can apply for food stamps, so people must use the Internet to complete the application. This change has made a significant impact on many local libraries, as many families in need of assistance do not have access to computers or the Internet at home. Some families also need special assistance because they do not have the computer or online skills to complete the application process.
"Strong libraries that provide up-to-date technology are essential to building healthy communities. Every day, America's libraries provide access to technology for millions of Americans, connecting people to e-government services, online homework help and employment services," said ALA President Leslie Burger. "But, unless federal, state and local funding is increased, too many libraries may be unable to maintain the high level of technology-based services our patrons have come to rely on."
Only one in five (20.7 percent) library branches say they have enough computer workstations, and 45 percent have no plans to add computers because of space considerations, cost factors, and maintenance issues.
Nearly half (45 percent) of libraries report their connection speeds, regardless of bandwidth, cannot meet user demands some or all of the time. The study identified connection speeds of 769 kbps or higher as adequate, but most commercial home broadband connections, at three to six mbps, surpass this rate. As online learning tools, information databases, and computer programs require more intensive bandwidth, Internet users need faster connections for a meaningful experience.
Rural libraries are particularly vulnerable as they tend to have fewer computers and lower Internet connection speeds, and more than a third (30.5 percent) of rural libraries have no plans to add or replace computers.
The American Library Association is the oldest and largest library association in the world, with more than 64,000 members. Its mission is to promote the highest quality library and information services and public access to information. ALA offers professional services and publications to members and nonmembers. www.ala.org
Guided by the belief that every life has equal value, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation works to reduce inequities and improve lives around the world. In developing countries, it focuses on improving health, reducing extreme poverty, and increasing access to technology in public libraries. In the United States, the foundation seeks to ensure that all people have access to a great education and to technology in public libraries. In its local region, it focuses on improving the lives of low-income families. Based in Seattle, the foundation is led by CEO Patty Stonesifer and Co-chairs William H. Gates Sr., Bill Gates, and Melinda French Gates. www.gatesfoundation.org.
The Information Use Management and Policy Institute at Florida State University conducts research that focuses on the information user, and the interaction of the user with information products, services, policies, technologies, and organizations. Of special interest is the planning and evaluation of networked and other information services. The Institute also conducts information policy research on current issues at Federal and state levels related to public access, privacy, records management, and use of information in electronic forms as well as other topics. www.ii.fsu.edu