Public libraries provide vital Internet access
Virtually all (99 percent) U.S. public libraries now provide free public computer access to the Internet, compared to 25 percent 10 years ago, according to a national study released in September. Most librarians report that this means Internet access for people who otherwise would not have it. This is the first time that impact has been quantified on a national scale.
“Libraries do an incredible job of connecting people with technology,” says Florida State University Professor John Bertot, author of the report, Public Libraries and the Internet 2006, which was conducted by FSU and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the American Library Association. For example, the Wired for Youth program of the Austin (Texas) Public Library provides computers, Internet access and support for youth ages 8-17 from disadvantaged communities and teaches them how to use technology as a way of preparing for their future.
The FSU study also indicates that more people are relying on library computers to find government services that are becoming less available locally and more available on line. In Florida, for example, regional offices where families can apply for food stamps have been phased out, so people must use the Internet to complete the application. Local libraries usually provide the needed Internet access, plus instruction in computer skills and completing forms.
However, “demand for this service is significantly outpacing libraries’ capacity to make necessary upgrades, purchases and repairs,” Bertot says. Almost half 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 that directly affect the quality of library services.
Only 21 percent of public library branches say they have enough computer workstations. Nearly half report that their connection speeds cannot always meet user demands. Rural public libraries are particularly vulnerable, as they tend to have fewer computers and lower connection speeds.
Still, the public expressed strong support for improving public libraries in 2006. Among the notable victories were those in Texas, where Austin voters approved a $90 million referendum, Houston residents backed a $37 million bond package for library replacement and renovation projects and — by an 82 percent margin — Dallas voters passed Proposition 4, which provided $46.2 million for maintenance, construction, and renovation of the city’s library system.
In Fort Collins, Colo., residents voted about 2-1 to create a library-taxing district expected to raise some $5.8 million. In Oregon, 55 percent of Washington County residents who voted approved a four-year, $29.5 million library levy, a particularly sweet victory since voters had defeated similar proposals twice since 2002.
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