Volume 27, Number 3, Fall 2005

New Report: Public Libraries Connect People to Technology but Face Challenges in Sustaining Service

A new report released in June 2005 by the Information Use Management and Policy Institute at the College of Information, Florida State University, gives a snapshot of Internet access and barriers to access in U.S. public libraries. The study was sponsored by the American Library Association’s Office for Information Technology Policy and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Principal investigators were Dr. John Carlo Bertot and Charles R. McClure and Paul T. Jaeger.

The study surveyed 6,865 public library facilities. Responses came from 5,023 facilities, an overall response rate of 73.2 percent. The study also included 4,537 public library systems, of which 3,084 responded, a response rate of 68 percent. Major findings are highlighted below.

Nearly every U.S. public library now offers free Internet access. Today, if you can get to the public library, you can get to the Internet. Millions of people use computers in public libraries to access e-government services, seek more meaningful employment, further their education, and research vital health information:

  • 98.9 percent of public libraries offer free access to computers and the Internet—a growth of about 400 percent since 1996, when just one in four libraries did.
  • Public libraries often provide the only Internet access for the nation’s poorest areas. Due to investments targeted at poorer areas, patrons in high-poverty urban, suburban, and rural areas now benefit from the greatest library connectivity (100 percent).
Demand for public library computers often exceeds supply. Most public libraries say they need more computer terminals to meet patrons’ needs, yet libraries have reached a plateau in the number of terminals they can make available. This may be influenced by funding or the physical limitations of some buildings. Many public libraries created waiting lists and reservation systems to ensure that patrons have a chance to use the computers:
  • Public library buildings have, on average, 10.4 computer terminals for public use.
  • Nine out of ten public libraries say they do not have enough terminals to meet demand at certain times of the day, while only one in ten say they always have enough terminals to meet patron demands.
Quality of Internet connections varies among rural and urban communities. Public libraries can offer community members distance learning opportunities and richer online content, but only when they have high-speed Internet connections:
  • Overall, 48 percent of public libraries have high-speed connections of 769 kbps or greater; 72 percent of urban libraries have high-speed connections of 769 kbps, while only 34 percent of rural libraries do.
  • Nearly 18 percent of public libraries offer wireless Internet access, and 21 percent plan to offer wireless within the next year. Libraries serving urban areas are more likely to offer wireless access than those serving rural areas (20.3 percent compared with 17.2 percent).
Technology training in libraries targets those who don’t have access elsewhere. Libraries are responding to patron demands for training by offering various forms of guidance from informal consultations with a librarian to formal classes on a specific skill, such as writing a resume:
  • The three largest audiences receiving training in libraries are seniors (57.3 percent), people without Internet access at home (52.6 percent), and adults seeking continuing education (51.2 percent).
  • Of libraries that offer training, only 28 percent do so on a scheduled basis.
  • Of libraries that offer scheduled training, 64 percent are urban libraries compared to 16 percent of rural communities.
Libraries are challenged to maintain quality technology services. To provide quality technology services for their communities, public libraries need stable and predictable sources of revenue to pay for ongoing connectivity; hardware, software, and Internet connectivity upgrades; technical support; and training.

Public libraries currently rely on several major funding sources for technology, including federal grants; federal E-rate discounts for telecommunications infrastructure and connectivity; state and local funding; and private support:

  • Technology budgets for most public library systems have stayed level with no increase for inflation or expansion of service.
  • Thirteen percent of libraries reported a decrease in their budgets in the previous year.
  • Nearly eight percent of libraries reported that the total hours the library computers were available has decreased in the past year.
  • One in four public libraries (26.4 percent) received federal E-rate discounts to pay for Internet connectivity, a program that is currently being reassessed by Congress.
  • 69.9 percent of public library systems do not have a formal plan to upgrade their hardware; 77.4 percent do not have a software upgrade schedule; and 96.4 percent do not have a connection speed upgrade schedule.
  • Libraries serving urban areas are open longer hours than their rural counterparts (50 hours per week compared with 39 hours).
  • Urban libraries were more likely to have a decrease in hours than rural libraries in the past year.
Read the full report.