Public libraries create a bridge for teens across the digital divide. High-speed Internet access is increasingly necessary for full participation in educational, cultural, and employment opportunities. Students from low-income families are less likely to have adequate Internet access than their wealthier peers. In its most recent report on Internet access, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce found that as income increases, higher percentages of Internet users have access to broadband service at home. Internet users with broadband access at home are also more likely to be daily Internet users (66.1%) than those without broadband at home (51.2%). Additionally, users without access to broadband service at home make up 90% of non-Internet users; of these, 75.3% of non-Internet users have no access to the Internet at home. This is a significant disadvantage when employers increasingly prefer (and some require) applicants to apply online. Access to the Internet is frequently a crucial step in the job search process. Further, in a 2007 study [Libraries Connect Communities: Public Library Funding and Technology Access Study 2006–2007], 73% of public libraries reported that they were the only source of free public access to computers and the Internet in their communities. Surveyed libraries said the three Internet services most critical to their community were online educational resources and databases for K–12 students (used by 67.7% of visitors); services for job-seekers (44%); and computer and Internet skills training (29.8%).
Students gain important critical thinking and career-building skills at the public library. A survey of more than 430 human resource officials, conducted in 2006 by the New York City-based Conference Board, found that 72% rated recent hires as deficient in basic English writing skills, such as grammar and spelling, and 81% rated them as deficient in written communications more broadly, such as memos, letters, and complex technical reports. In a 2005 survey conducted for the National Association of Manufacturers, 84% of respondents said schools were not doing a good job preparing students for the workplace, with more than half citing specific deficiencies in mathematics and science and 3% citing deficiencies in reading and comprehension. The lack of applied or “soft” skills—everyday social skills, work ethic, verbal and nonverbal communications, attendance, interview abilities, time and workload management, working productively with others, and attitude—dominated the complaints of business leaders. People who score higher on “measures of complex problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity, and fluency with ideas have higher mean earnings in the labor market, across all levels of education.”
Teens are regular and enthusiastic patrons who continue to visit and utilize the public library at increasingly greater rates. In a 2007 poll, it was found that one-third of teens between the ages of 12–18 visited the public library ten times a year or more. Seventy-eight percent of teens who consider themselves “regular library visitors” borrow books and other materials for personal use from the public library on a frequent basis. Computer and online games have become part of the mix at many public libraries, and some use gaming to attract new patrons. Libraries’ response to gaming demonstrates the institutions’ flexibility and willingness to innovate in their response to changing audience interests. The Public Library Association’s 2007 Public Library Data Service Statistical Report, which tracked young adult service trends in public libraries, found that nearly 90% of the public libraries surveyed offer young adult services; over half (51.9%) employ at least one full-time equivalent staff person dedicated to fostering young adult programs and services. Compare this to 1994, when just 11% of libraries had a young adult librarian; 58% of librarians considered the lack of staff a barrier to increasing services for young adults and 61% indicated that insufficient services, resources, and programs were moderate or major barriers to increasing services and resources for young adults.