CHICAGO — Strategic vision and careful management have helped U.S. public libraries weather the storm of the Great Recession, supporting their role as a lifeline to the technology resources and training essential to full participation in the nation’s economy. However, a new report underscores the competing concerns that face America’s libraries: cumulative budget cuts that threaten access to libraries and services, increasing demand for technology training and the chronic presence of the digital divide.
More Americans than ever turn to their libraries for access to essential technology services, with 62 percent of libraries reporting that they are the only provider of free computer and Internet access in their community. More than 60 percent of libraries report increased public use of computers and Wi-Fi over the past year.
These findings are among the highlights of the 2012 Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study, produced by the American Library Association (ALA) and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
“As our libraries navigate through the slow economic recovery, they must operate during an era of increased demand with decreased revenue,” said ALA President Molly Raphael. “Public libraries are the most cost-effective bridge for the ever present digital divide: they offer the digital literacy skills training and broadband access mandatory for success in the 21st-century global marketplace.”
Reflecting stubborn unemployment statistics, for the third consecutive year, libraries report services for job seekers as the most important public Internet service. More than 92 percent of libraries nationwide provide access to job databases and other job resources, while 76 percent help users complete online job applications.
Increasingly, as government agencies eliminate print forms and close satellite offices, communities turn to their public libraries for access to e-government resources, and assistance with requests such as filling out forms for Social Security and Medicare, filing court petitions and downloading W-2 forms. More than 96 percent of libraries report providing assistance with e-government services, an increase of nearly 16 percent from last year.
More than 90 percent of public libraries offer formal or informal technology training. Libraries report continued high demand for basic level instruction for computer skills, general software applications and Internet use. More than 36 percent of libraries report increased registration for technology training classes over the previous year.
In a trend reflecting the skyrocketing sales of e-readers and tablets, 76 percent of libraries offer access to e-books, an increase of 9 percent from last year. Additionally, e-readers are available for check-out at 39 percent of libraries.
New this year, the study reports on library adoption of social media and mobile technology applications to enhance access to library services. More than 70 percent of libraries report using social networking tools, such as Facebook. A small but growing number of libraries —15 percent — report websites optimized for mobile devices, and 7 percent of libraries have developed smartphone apps.
This year’s study shows an emerging digital divide: rural libraries (which account for nearly 50 percent of all public library outlets in the U.S.) lag in the provision of technology access and services. Only 17 percent of rural libraries report offering broadband connectivity speeds greater than 10 Mbps, as compared to 57 percent of urban libraries. Formal technology training classes are provided by 63 percent of urban libraries compared to 32 percent of rural libraries, while websites optimized for mobile devices have been launched by 36 percent of urban libraries as compared to 9 percent of rural libraries.
Technology initiatives at today’s libraries face continued fiscal challenges. More than 57 percent of public libraries report flat or decreased budgets for FY2012, close to the 60 percent reported the previous year. For the third year in a row, more than 40 percent of state libraries report decreased state funding for public libraries.
Donna Howell, director, Mountain Regional Library System in Georgia notes: “Our funding has been cut so low that we’re really at the end of our financial tether. But we’ve been able to keep our spirits up, because despite the budget cuts of the past five years, the use of our libraries has grown in double digits every year. Yes, we’re doing a lot more with a lot less, but the fact that we’re still relevant enough to our community for them to keep coming back in such large numbers, gives me hope for our future.”
“Investments in public libraries are working. The 2012 Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study shows how American public libraries support education, economic development, and social inclusion for individuals and communities,” said Deborah Jacobs, director of Global Libraries at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “To ensure that libraries continue to provide access and opportunity for all, it is crucial that both public and private partners consider how they can help libraries sustain the critical services they offer.”
Conducted by the ALA and the Information Policy & Access Center at the University of Maryland, this year’s study builds on the largest study of Internet connectivity in public libraries that began in 1994. These findings serves as an annual “state of the library” report on the technology resources and funding that enables free public access to these resources. The study can be found online at www.ala.org/plinternetfunding.
An infographic featuring key study data is available at http://www.ala.org/research/plftas/2011_2012/weatheringthestorm.
Additional graphics and resources are available in press kit.
The American Library Association (ALA), the voice of America’s libraries, is the oldest, largest and most influential library association in the world. Its approximately 60,000 members are primarily librarians but also trustees, publishers and other library supporters. The association represents all types of libraries; its mission is to promote the highest quality library and information services and public access to information. http://www.ala.org
The Information Policy & Access Center (iPAC) at University of Maryland College Park conducts research that focuses on the processes, practices, policies, and social issues that govern access to information in our increasingly digital information society. iPAC is committed to studying what policies and/or technologies lead to equitable and inclusive information access, a digitally literate population, an informed and engaged public, or access Internet-enabled resources and technologies. http://ipac.umd.edu
Guided by the belief that every life has equal value, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation works to help all people lead healthy, productive lives. In developing countries, it focuses on improving people’s health with vaccines and other life-saving tools and giving them the change to lift themselves out of hunger and extreme poverty. In the United State, it seeks to significantly improve education so that all young people have the opportunity to reach their full potential. Based in Seattle, Washington, the foundation is led by CEO Jeff Raikes and Co-chair William H. Gates Sr., under the direction of Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett. http://www.gatesfoundation.org