Volume 26, Number 1, Spring 2004

Eighteen States Awarded Grants to Sustain Public Access Computing in Libraries

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has announced grants to eighteen states to help public libraries continue to provide no-cost access to computers and the Internet for the public. These "Staying Connected" challenge grants, totaling $5.8 million, are going to state library agencies in Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Maine, Michigan, Montana, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia.

State library agencies will use the Staying Connected funds for technology training and support programs, broadband connectivity as well as hardware and software upgrades in local libraries.

“Public libraries play a vital role in bridging the digital divide for those who do not have access to computers and the Internet. Today, because of the hard work of librarians across the country, if you can get to the library, you can get to the Internet,” said Melinda Gates, co-founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. “The challenge now is to help public libraries ‘stay connected.’ Sustaining public access computing will require continued support from local communities.”

Research conducted by the University of Washington’s Public Access Computing Project shows that people with lower income and education levels are more likely to rely on the library for their only access to computers and the Internet. While computer and Internet use has grown among all populations in recent years, income and socioeconomic status remain key indicators of access to these technologies. In 2001, the U.S. Department of Commerce reported just 25 percent of households earning less than $15,000 annually are connected to the Internet, compared with nearly 80 percent of households with annual incomes greater than $75,000. Across all demographics, more than fourteen million Americans use library computers for Internet access.

There is significant public support for sustaining access to computers and the Internet in libraries. According to a recent study conducted by the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, Americans believe that providing computers for public use is one of the three most important things their library can do.

“When I went back to college at age forty-two, I was the only student who couldn’t use a computer,” said Rebecca Young, a patron at Sissonville Public Library in West Virginia. “I learned how to use the computer at my public library and continue to use the computers to take online courses. Having this access to technology helped me complete my degree in elementary education and enables me to stay current in my field.”

The Staying Connected grants are "challenge" grants, meaning that the foundation matched funds raised by the state at a two-to-one ratio, bringing the total amount of funding dedicated to keeping libraries connected to more than $8 million. State library agencies have used this challenge as a catalyst to build partnerships with government entities, businesses, other foundations and individuals. For example, Texas, which received a grant of nearly $1 million, has assembled state, federal and private dollars to provide continued technology infrastructure upgrades and technical assistance for public libraries.

“The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s investments and the ongoing support of government agencies, other foundations, businesses and individuals have made a tremendous difference in our state’s libraries,” said Peggy Rudd, Director of the Texas State Library and Archives Commission. “When we all come together to expand public access computing, children can explore the universe of knowledge, businesses can expand, and communities can thrive.”

Since 1998, the foundation has committed $250 million through its U.S. Library Program to install more than forty-seven thousand computers in almost eleven thousand libraries in all fifty states and the District of Columbia. Libraries located in disadvantaged areas received hardware and software, networking funds, technical support and publications, as well as training for library staff.

In addition to the Staying Connected grants, the foundation is working with Libraries for the Future to strengthen librarians’ capacities for community outreach and supports WebJunction, a Web-based service that gives librarians and others an online platform to share knowledge and experience in providing technology to patrons. The foundation also supports libraries internationally, through grants and its annual Access to Learning Award.

For more information, contact Marie Groark, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Grants Awarded

Alabama Public Library Service: $248,400
Arizona State Library: $70,800
Colorado State Library: $142,000
Delaware Division of Libraries: $103,200
Florida Division of Library and Information Services: $534,000
Maine State Library: $118,560
Library of Michigan: $482,160
Montana State Library: $198,720
New Mexico State Library: $284,320
New York State Library: $222,640
State Library of North Carolina: $523,920
The State Library of Ohio: $358,000
Oklahoma Department of Libraries: $140,000
Pennsylvania Office of Commonwealth Libraries: $278,960
South Carolina State Library: $217,000
Tennessee State Library and Archives: $582,800
Texas State Library and Archives Commission: $907,520
West Virginia Library Commission: $424,000