Digital Literacy in US Public Libraries

By Patrick Hogan |
Excerpted from the Library Technology Reports August / September 2011 (vol. 47, no. 6) “The Transforming Public Library Infrastructure,” ALA Office for Resarch and Statistics. Chapter 6 “Digital Literacy Center Stage, Larra Clark and Marijke Visser. Learn how to use the data from from the study in a free WebJunction webinar November 1, 2011. See the archive and resources page.

While information literacy has been well defined over the past two decades in our school and academic libraries, public libraries are newer to formal instruction in this arena. For many public libraries, teaching basic computers skills—in classes or as needed—has become a requirement as critical interactions with employers and government agencies demand it from those seeking resources and opportunities and as these individuals come to the library to access such resources. With computer skill classes now a regular part of the library landscape, it is time to raise the bar and expand patrons’ digital fluency and evaluation skills.

A seminal work in this arena is the 2009 Museums, Libraries, and 21st Century Skills report from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). Through a self-assessment tool, case studies, and policy analysis, the report establishes the essential role that libraries and museums play in creating an engaged citizenry and competitive workforce. The report highlights the ways in which these institutions support information, communications, and technology literacy; creativity and problem solving; civic literacy; global awareness; and other twenty-first-century skills.

While there are no national data available that definitively tell us the level of engagement that currently exists in public libraries around digital literacy, the Public Library Funding and Technology Access Study provides some insight.This year's data tell us that, of responding libraries

  • 79 percent provide informal, point-of-use assistance to patrons
  • 38 percent offer formal classes
  • 30 percent offer online tutorials and training
  • 28 percent offer one-on-one assistance by appointment
  • 13 percent do not offer any technology training


(Percentages will not equal 100 percent, as the categories are not mutually exclusive. A library may, for instance, offer classes, online tutorials and informal assistance.)

Of those libraries that offer classes (38 percent), basic training is the most common:

  • 94 percent offer general Internet use (e.g., setting up e-mail; Web browsing).
  • 93 percent offer general computers skills training (e.g., using a mouse and keyboard, Internet search skills).
  • 82 percent teach online/Web search skills and basic office software.
  • 80 percent teach general software use (e.g., word processing, spreadsheets).
  • More than half of libraries also teach how to use the library's OPAC and online databases.


Nearly half (48 percent) of all public libraries now provide formal classes on how to access online job-seeking and career-related information, up from 27 percent in 2009.

Urban libraries (59 percent) are far more likely to offer formal classes than their suburban (47 percent) and rural counterparts (25 percent), likely due to the availability of dedicated space (often computer labs) and more specialized staffing. Urban libraries were also the most likely to report they have seen increased use of patron technology classes over the past year—41 percent, compared with 32 percent for suburban libraries and 19 percent for rural libraries. A 2010 study from the University of Washington confirms widespread need for and use of public library technology training and assistance. Fifty-two million people got help using computers from a librarian or volunteer, and 16 million participated in public library computer classes in 2009.

With funding and support from BTOP, more public libraries are expanding Internet access and digital literacy training. As part of the Broadbandexpress@yourlibrary BTOP grant to the New York State Department of Education, for example, approximately 860 computers will be deployed in thirty libraries and five mobile training centers in forty-one counties across the state.

“E-mobile” training vans with high-speed broadband services are being deployed in rural locations and underserved communities around the state, offering classes ranging from basic word processing to writing a cover letter to understanding social networking sites such as LinkedIn. Most libraries are also partnering with others in the community to develop and deliver digital literacy training. For example, the Clinton-Essex-Franklin Library System partnered with Adirondack Community Action Programs and OneWorkSource on its new Mobile Broadband Library InternetXpress service.

Digital literacy also is a cornerstone of the BTOP-funded Fast Forward New Mexico (FFNM) initiative, which is helping predominantly rural, Hispanic, and Native American communities across the state better prepare for economic and educational opportunities.nMore than 1,200 people have received Internet skills training to date. FFNM and its partner, the Global Center for Cultural Entrepreneurship, were honored by the Rural Economic Development Forum in May 2011 for their Small Business Success class curriculum.

Underlying all of this, of course, are human resources. Librarians, library staff, or volunteers must be available to help on the fly or by appointment or lead a class. As the gap grows between early adopters of cutting-edge technologies and those at the other end of the spectrum, library staff skills and competencies must continue to evolve and grow to meet our mission of ensuring everyone can access digital opportunity.

One useful set of competencies, another BTOP-funded project, emerged from the Colorado State Library. These competencies outline the skills and knowledge necessary for library staff to be effective technology trainers. The competencies span technology skills to creating an adult learning environment to instructional delivery and design skills. See Technology Trainer Competencies, Colorado State Library.