Internet Use in Libraries

ALA Library Fact Sheet 26

The focus of this fact sheet is on how libraries assist with the ever-growing Internet access needs of their library patrons - especially those whose only Internet access is using the computers that libraries, especially public libraries, provide.

Most Recent ALA Resources on Internet Use in Libraries

National Library Reports

ALA Library Fact Sheet 6 spotlights several annual national survey reports on libraries, including these latest editions:

  • See the June 18, 2014 press release from federal agency, The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), IMLS Releases 2011 Public Libraries in the United States Report - Statistical analysis shows how investments affect library usage, in reference to the most current national statistics report on public libraries, Public Libraries in the United States Survey: Fiscal Year 2011 (2014):

      For the first time, the agency used statistical modeling to examine the relationship between investments in public libraries and use of libraries and found that in most cases when investment increases, use increases, and when investment decreases, use decreases, and that these relationships persist over time.

      • Increases in investments in books and e-books, programs, public-access computers, and staffing were associated with increased levels of visitation. For example, each additional FTE (full-time equivalent) on staff corresponded with, on average, a 3371.8 increase in the number of visits.

      • Increases in collections and programs were related to increases in circulation. For example, for every 100 e-books available, an additional 345 items circulated, and for each additional program offered, there was an increase of 61.2 items circulated.

      • Increases in the number of public-access Internet computers were related to increases in computer use and program attendance. For every additional computer, there was an increase of 474 uses and an increase in program attendance of 52.4.

      • Increases in programs and staffing were related to higher levels of program attendance. Each additional staff person related to an increase of 95.2 in program attendance; every additional program corresponded to 10 additional program attendees.

      The findings also indicate the ways in which library service is fundamentally changing. Reductions in physical visits to the library are associated with investments in e-materials such as e-books, which may be an indication that services are moving online, allowing people to perform library transactions such as checking availability of materials, checking them out and returning them online. And, an overall reduction in computer use could correspond with investments in wireless, which libraries have made so that customers can use their own devices. These changes signal the need for new data elements for the survey to allow a closer examination of electronic delivery of library collections and services.

    Full details can be found in the Public Libraries in the United States Survey: Fiscal Year 2011 (PDF). Especially see the Introduction:

    Public libraries provide learning and information resources for individuals, families, businesses, and nonprofit organizations. In their role as community anchor institutions, they create opportunities for people of all ages through access to collections and technology. Public libraries support community improvement by providing programming that addresses the health, education, and workforce development needs of local residents. Libraries are places where people can gain assistance with research and information needs from knowledgeable library staff. In communities across the nation, local public libraries complement commercial development activity and provide attractive neighborhood amenities in residential settings.

    And also see the report's National Level Data and Trends section, which notes:

    Over the past two decades, public library services have experienced constant change. Communities grow, technologies get faster, and people expect their local service providers to keep pace. The demand for print books is shifting, with e-books capturing more market share every day. Public libraries must continue to change to meet the needs of the communities they serve. Just a decade ago, people needed access to computer terminals. In FY 2011, the ubiquity of smartphones and tablets has shifted these needs to broadband access and e-books. Despite all of these changes, public libraries have remained uniquely positioned to meet the public’s information needs for years to come.

    In addition to keeping pace with changes in culture and technology, libraries continue to address a core set of informal learning functions in their communities. Public libraries promote reading, provide access to information, and serve as anchors for their communities. Libraries are the first community institutions to provide a child with learning resources, the first and largest homework help center in the community, and often first responders in times of personal crisis or natural disasters, providing a safe place and access to government resources. Libraries deliver access to information and bridge the digital divide. By helping people gain skills and find jobs, they serve as an economic engine. In a world where there are multiple demands on the public attention, from movies and video games to social networking, the library serves as a dynamic community center where people can gather together and discover new things about the world in which they live.

    The Supplemental Tables (formerly formed the bulk of the reports; now separated out and labeled "supplemental") of the Public Libraries in the United States Survey: Fiscal Year 2011 include the following:

    Table 12. Number of public-use Internet computers in public libraries and uses of Internet computers per year, by state: Fiscal year 2011 on pages 13-14 of this 30-page PDF

    Table 16. Total, average, and median number of electronic materials [Electronic books vs. Databases] in public libraries, by type of material and state: Fiscal year 2011 on pages 25-26 of this 30-page PDF

    Table 17. Total licensed databases in public libraries and percentage distribution of databases, by source of databases and state: Fiscal year 2011 on pages 28-29 of this 30-page PDF

    Table 25. Total collection expenditures of public libraries and percentage distribution of expenditures, by type of expenditure and state: Fiscal year 2011 [Print materials expenditures vs. electronic materials expenditures] on pages 16-17 of this 33-page PDF

    Table 37. Average number of public-use Internet computers of public libraries per stationary Table A3. outlet and number per 5,000 population, by state: Fiscal year 2011 on page 3 of this 12-page PDF

  • Libraries Connect Communities: Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study, 2011-2012 assesses public access to computers, the Internet, and Internet-related services in U.S. public libraries, and the impact of library funding changes on connectivity, technology deployment, and sustainability. The study builds on the longest-running and largest study of Internet connectivity in public libraries, Public Libraries & the Internet, begun in 1994 by John Carlo Bertot and Charles R. McClure. This latest report's findings were summarized in our June 21, 2012 news item, U.S. libraries strive to provide innovative technology services despite budget cuts, stating that more Americans than ever turn to their libraries for access to essential technology services, which 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. 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.

  • The federal library agency, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), in Washington DC, announced in a June 17, 2011, press release, U.S. IMPACT Study Second Report - Opportunity for All: How Library Policies and Practices Impact Public Internet Access:
    Public libraries have become essential points of access to the Internet and computers in local communities, with nearly every library in the country offering public internet access. Yet, individual library practices can have significant affect on the quality and character of this public service. Opportunity for All: How Library Policies and Practices Impact Public Internet Access (PDF), offers an analysis of the service in four public library systems and makes recommendations for strategies that help to sustain and improve public access service. The report was funded through a partnership between the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Institute of Museum and Library Services and was produced by the University of Washington Information School.

    Libraries play a vital role in providing services that are necessary in everyday life. The recommendations from this study provide a foundation to discuss the wide range of internal and external policy issues that affect the quality, efficiency and effectiveness of the types of library resources and environments most patrons encounter in U.S. public libraries.

    "This study identifies important best practices that can help libraries improve patron experience and contribute to positive learning outcomes," said IMLS Director Susan Hildreth. "This report will be very useful for educating the public and provides actionable recommendations for policymakers and funders as they consider future efforts in this area."

    This second report is a companion volume to the first report in the U.S. IMPACT Study, Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries.

CIPA - Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA)

Filtering in schools and libraries - After June 23, 2003

The Supreme Court decision in United States v. American Library Association, No. 02-361 (June 23, 2003), "the CIPA decision," means that public libraries that accept federal dollars must install filters on all computers. See Filters and Filtering.

For additional details, consult

For a summary of the issues and what is required most recently, please see the article posted April 2, 2013, "Filtering and the First Amendment: When is it okay to block speech online?" by Deborah Caldwell-Stone of ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom.

And also see our news item dated June 11, 2014: Over-filtering in schools and libraries harms education, new ALA report finds

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Schools and libraries nationwide are routinely filtering internet content far more than what the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) requires, according to “Fencing Out Knowledge: Impacts of the Children’s Internet Protection Act 10 Years Later (pdf),” a report released today by the American Library Association (ALA). CIPA requires public libraries and K-12 schools to employ internet filtering software to receive certain federal funding.

Extent of filtering in public libraries - Before June 23, 2003

Before the Supreme Court decision was handed down, some public libraries had installed filters on some or all of their computers. How many? John Bertot and Charles McClure of the Florida State University, Information Use Management & Policy Institute gathered data on that topic in the spring of 2002, through a grant from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). Their report, Public Libraries and the Internet 2002: Internet Connectivity and Networked Services (PDF, 28 pgs), was the 6th in a series of Internet connectivity studies conducted by this research team.

The study used a stratified sample drawn from the 16,004 public library outlets that could be geo-coded and sampled in terms of their level of poverty (less than 20%, 20%-40%, and greater than 40%) and metropolitan status (urban, suburban, and rural). Selected outlets received a brief questionnaire covering connectivity, number of terminals, access to subscription databases, and use of filters. Regarding filters for content (Table 10), the results were as follows:

Filtered Computers Percentage of Public Libraries
None 52.1%
On some computers 17.5%
On all computers 24.4%

Outlets in urban areas were most likely to have filters on all computers and outlets in rural areas were most likely to have no filters.

Current Resources

ALA Recommended Websites
List of recommended and award-winning Web sites and online resources for all ages, along with Internet use and safety tips for parents and Internet use policy help for librarians, trustees, and educators. Includes guidance for using social media.

ALA Online Store: All Systems and Technologies Titles and All Web Sites titles
List of ALA Editions books and eEditions e-books, ALA TechSource Workshops, Library Technology Reports issues, ALA Editions eCourses, PLA On-Demand Webinars

ALA Library curated lists of resources:

Libraries and Social Media

E-Book Readers

Mobile Library Services

Digital Divide

ALA Additional Resources

Access - Equity of Access

Broadband & E-Rate - Net Neutrality

Transforming Libraries: E-books & Digital Content - E-Book Media and Communications Toolkit - Ebooks

Liberty, Privacy & Surveillance - Choose Privacy Week

NOTE: Originally, the focus of this fact sheet was on the prevalence of U.S. libraries, especially public libraries, having computers with access to the Internet that their patrons could use. Previous versions of this fact sheet can be accessed via the Internet Archive Wayback Machine using the original URL

Last updated: July 2014

For more information on this or other fact sheets, contact the ALA Library Reference Desk by telephone: 800-545-2433, extension 2153; fax: 312-280-3255; e-mail:; or regular mail: ALA Library, American Library Association, 50 East Huron Street, Chicago, IL 60611.