Internet Access and Digital Holdings in Libraries

Easily accessible fact sheet on the use of internet in academic, public and school libraries.

ALA Library Fact Sheet 26

This fact sheet was formerly named "Internet Use in Libraries." 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 - as well as the ever-growing demand for digital materials, including e-books.

Digital Inclusion Survey

Funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services and managed by the ALA Office for Research & Statistics and the Information Policy and Access Center at the University of Maryland, the Digital Inclusion Study provides national- and state-level data. The International City/County Management Association and ALA Office for Information Technology Policy are partners in the research effort.

For more information on the Digital Inclusion Survey -- including direct links to the report's Infographics; several issue briefs regarding public libraries and aspects of digital inclusion; the state-level data; and the interactive national map -- please visit

See the press release dated October 14, 2015, New research highlights libraries' expanded roles, the announcement of the release of the 2014 Digital Inclusion Survey National Report, which caps two decades of research on public libraries and the internet and the expanded roles libraries are playing in their communities. The report's Executive Summary (PDF) states:

Over this time, we have seen libraries in a constant evolution in tandem with advances in technology. Just
as libraries offered word processing software before personal computers were commonplace in homes and
offered many people their first chance to try the Internet, public libraries now enable many patrons to
explore e-readers, tablets and maker spaces.

Many challenges remain, such as the scant capacity faced by many small and rural libraries and a
persistent digital divide that continues to strongly impact Americans with the lowest incomes. Public
libraries, whose services have innovatively adapted to the shifting economic and social landscape of the
past two decades, are well positioned to act as a national network supporting communities in an age of
digital disruption.

The report's findings include:

  • Virtually all libraries (98 percent) offer free public Wi-Fi access;

  • 95 percent of libraries offer summer reading programs to forestall the “summer slide” in reading achievement experienced when learning takes a holiday between school terms;

  • Close to 90 percent of libraries offer basic digital literacy training, and a significant majority support training related to new technology devices (62 percent), safe online practices (57 percent) and social media use (56 percent);

  • 76 percent of libraries assist patrons in using online government programs and services;

  • The vast majority of libraries provide programs that support people in applying for jobs (73 percent), access and using online job opportunity resources (68 percent) and using online business information resources (48 percent);

  • A significant majority of libraries host social connection events for adults (61 percent) and teens (60 percent) such as book discussion groups or gaming programs;

  • 45 percent of libraries provide early-learning technologies for pre-K children; and

  • More than one-third of all libraries provide literacy, GED prep, STEAM and afterschool programs.

Digital content offerings also continue to climb, with more than 90 percent of public libraries offering e-books, online homework assistance (95 percent) and online language learning (56 percent), to name a few. A recent survey from library ebook supplier OverDrive finds that more than 120 million e-books and audiobooks were borrowed from libraries they supply in the first nine months of 2015, representing year-over-year growth of almost 20 percent.

See the press release dated April 16, 2015, Library broadband speed test shows increased capacity; room still for improvement for information on "Broadband Quality in Public Libraries (PDF)", a supplementary report released jointly during National Library Week 2015 by the American Library Association (ALA) and the Information Policy & Access Center (iPAC) at the University of Maryland College Park as part of the Digital Inclusion Survey.

The study examined the quality of broadband access in more than 2,200 public libraries by collecting data on upload and download speeds in 49 states... The speed test study was administered by the Information Policy and Access Center at the University of Maryland as a supplement to the Digital Inclusion Survey, funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The supplemental speed test research adds to the body of knowledge about the quality of public access in public libraries.

National Library Reports

ALA Library Fact Sheet 4 and ALA Library Fact Sheet 6 spotlight several annual national survey reports on libraries, including these latest editions:

  • The most current federal statistics report on public libraries is Public Libraries in the United States Survey: Fiscal Year 2012 (December 2014). The Public Library Survey (PLS) reports are presently conducted by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and give the most recent usage statistics as reported by libraries, in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Explained in the press release January 26, 2015, IMLS 2012 Public Libraries Survey Report Issued and in the Public Libraries in the United States Survey FY 2012 Fast Facts (PDF):

    • Libraries continue to add to their digital holdings, including e-books and downloadable audio and video.

    • There were 271,146 public access computers in public libraries, representing a 1-year increase of 3.7 percent.

    • There were 340.5 million use sessions of public access computers. Although this has declined in recent years, this was similar to FY 2011 levels. This finding is discussed in light of the increase of personal digital devices, such as smartphones.

    As stated in the introduction to Public Libraries in the United States Survey: Fiscal Year 2012 (PDF):

    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.

    Noted in the National Level Data and Trends section of the Public Libraries in the United States Survey: Fiscal Year 2012 (PDF):

    Public Access Internet Computer Use Sessions: Access to the Internet and computer resources is one of the many valuable resources public libraries provide. The PLS provides a metric for the use of these resources: the number of uses (sessions) of public access Internet computers. In FY 2012, there were 340.5 million user sessions on public access Internet computers at public libraries. This is a 2-year decrease of 7.4 percent from the recent peak in user sessions in FY 2010. There were 1.1 user sessions per capita and 227.4 user sessions per 1,000 visits. Many public libraries offer broadband, which can be accessed not only through the library-provided computers, but also through patrons’ personal devices. Although the uses of public access Internet computers may be decreasing, we will be exploring how to capture the many different ways that people use public library wireless access in future surveys.

    Collections: Public library collections are developed to meet the information needs of the communities they serve. Collections include both physical and digital materials, which include print books, e-books, DVDs and downloadable audio files. The average collection size across all public libraries was 110,708.0 items (median = 42833.5), including printed materials, e-books, audio and video in all formats. There was much variability across libraries, with collection sizes ranging from 314 to 23,246,282 items. Across all public libraries, there were 783.9 million volumes of print materials.

    Digital holdings at public libraries have increased over the past 10 years. E-books provide flexibility and convenience for users and an opportunity for libraries to leverage cooperatives for access. In some cases, states purchase or license e-books to be circulated through any of the public libraries in the state. There were 5,733 public libraries that reported having e-books as part of their collections, ranging from 1 to 273,885 e-books. The average number of e-books was 15,206.6, and the median was 6,280.

    Having e-books as part of a public library’s collection was related to higher rates of both visitation and circulation. In FY 2012, 5,733 public libraries reported having e-books; 3,349 (36.9 percent) of public libraries did not report having e-books. Public libraries with ebooks in their collection had significantly higher rates of visitation per capita (average 7.2, median = 5.8), compared to libraries not reporting e-books (average = 5.6, median = 4.0). Having e-books in the collection was related to an average increase of 1.5 in visitation per capita. Libraries that reported having e-books as a part of their collections also had significantly higher rates of circulation per capita (average = 10.05, median = 8.27) than libraries that did not report having e-books (average = 6.82, median = 4.98).

    In addition to books, public libraries also include audio and video materials in their collections, in both physical and digital/downloadable formats. Of the 8,929 libraries with audio holdings, the average number of items was 8,491.2 (median = 2,988). In the 8,933 libraries with video materials, the average number of video materials was 6,556.7 (median = 1,988).

    Public Access Internet Computers: A core function of public libraries is to facilitate open access to information and ideas. In the 21st century, public libraries accomplish this by providing public access to computers and the Internet, serving as technology access points for communities. There were 271,146 public access Internet computers available at public libraries in FY 2012, a 10-year increase of 93.1 percent. This resulted in 4.5 computers per 5,000 people in library legal service areas, a 10-year increase of 76.4 percent. Almost all public libraries (99.5 percent) offer Internet computers; only 45 libraries that responded do not offer this service.

    Visitation per Capita: Visitation per capita is a ratio of the number of physical visits to a public library to the number of people living in that library’s legal service area... E-book volume was also a significant predictor of visitation per capita. E-books per 1,000 people had a small negative effect on visitation per capita. In the interpretation of this effect, it is critical to keep in mind that the metric for visitation is based upon in-person visitation. E-books at public libraries are checked out and returned virtually, making a physical visit unnecessary. This service is particularly important for libraries that serve a large geographic area, such as those in rural areas. Therefore, it is logical that an increase in e-book holdings for a library would lead to a decrease for in-person visitation.

    Circulation per Capita: Circulation per capita is the ratio of circulation of materials to the number of people living in a library’s legal service area... The strongest predictor of circulation per capita was expenditures on electronic materials. For each $1.00 spent on electronic materials per capita, there was a 0.54 increase in circulation per capita. That is equivalent to one more item circulated for every two people in a library service area.

    Public Access Computer Use Sessions per Capita: Public access computer use sessions per capita is the ratio of the number of times a public access computer was used to the number of people in the legal service area... The strongest predictors for computer use sessions per capita were expenditures on electronic materials and the number of public access computers per capita. For every $1.00 spent on electronic materials per capita, there was a 0.05 increase in the number of computer use sessions per capita. This is the equivalent of an additional computer use session for every 20 people. For each additional public access Internet computer per 5,000 people, there was a 0.03 increase in computer use sessions per capita.

    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 2012 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 2012 on pages 13-14 of this 33-page PDF

    Table 16. Total, average, and median number of downloadable materials [Audio - downloadable titles vs. Video - downloadable titles] in public libraries, by type of material and state: Fiscal year 2012 on pages 25-26 of this 33-page PDF

    Table 17. Total, average, and median number of electronic materials [Electronic books vs. Databases] in public libraries, by type of material and state: Fiscal year 2012 on pages 28-29 of this 33-page PDF

    Table 18. Total licensed databases in public libraries and percentage distribution of databases, by source of databases and state: Fiscal year 2012 on pages 31-32 of this 33-page PDF

    Table 26. Total collection expenditures of public libraries and percentage distribution of expenditures [Print materials expenditures vs. electronic materials expenditures], by type of expenditure and state: Fiscal year 2012 on pages 16-17 of this 27-page PDF

    Table 38. Average number of public-use Internet computers of public libraries per stationary outlet and number per 5,000 population, by state: Fiscal year 2012 on page 3 of this 12-page PDF

  • The most recent national statistics on the nearly 4000 college and university libraries across the nation were collected by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and published in February 2014 in Academic Libraries: 2012 First Look (2014). The "Selected Findings" summary notes:

    In fiscal year 2012, academic libraries added 52.7 million e-books, resulting in total e-books holdings of 252.6 million units (table 5).

    Academic libraries spent a total of approximately $2.8 billion on information resources (table 9). Of that, expenditures for electronic current serial subscriptions totaled about $1.4 billion.

  • The latest nation-wide expenditures figures for school libraries in public schools comes from Characteristics of Public Elementary and Secondary School Library Media Centers in the United States: Results From the 2011–12 Schools and Staffing Survey published in August 2013. The "Selected Findings" summary notes:

    Public school library media centers provided technological services, including automated catalog(s) for student and/or staff use (88 percent), laptops for staff use outside the library media center (54 percent), laptops for student use outside the library media center (40 percent), and technology to assist students and/or staff with disabilities (Includes TDD and specially equipped workstations) (31 percent) (table 6).

    The percentage of library media centers with computer workstations for student and/or staff use was 97 percent in traditional public schools and 88 percent in public charter schools (table 7). Of the library media center computer workstations, 95 percent had internet access. Among all public school library media centers, 86 percent provided student access to online, licensed databases (Online, licensed databases are supplied by commercial vendors via the Internet. They may include indexes, abstracts, full-text article databases, or full-text reference sources, such as encyclopedias, almanacs, biographical sources, and other quick fact-finding sources.).

  • 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.

Connect with Us: Official ALA Social Media Channels

Official accounts and hashtags for ALA events, plus accounts for ALA Publishing & Communications, Divisions, Initiatives, Offices, Round Tables, Committees, and Affiliates.

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

Recent Resources on Internet Use in Libraries

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: October 2015

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.