New study shows libraries need support to sustain quality access to free computer services
CHICAGO – Nearly every U.S. public library offers free access to computers and the Internet, but overall libraries are challenged to provide enough workstations to meet demand, pay for ongoing Internet connectivity costs, and plan for necessary upgrades to the technology, according to a report released today at the opening of the American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference. The report was conducted by the Information Use Management and Policy Institute at Florida State University (FSU) and commissioned by the ALA and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
New data shows that 98.9 percent of all public libraries offer free public access to computers and the Internet—a growth of more than 400 percent since 1996, when just one in four libraries did.
Millions of Americans use computers in public libraries to access government services, research health information, enroll in distance-learning classes, and start small businesses. Library computers have become so popular that more than 85 percent of libraries say they are not able to meet demand for computers at certain times during the day.
"Libraries are an indispensable resource for Americans seeking information online and in print," said ALA President Carol Brey Casiano. "Visits to public libraries have more than doubled to 1.2 billion annually in the past 12 years, and many of these people are coming for computer and Internet access. To ensure free and open access for all Americans, we must keep library doors open and fund library technology initiatives."
The new report reveals that, in the past year, technology budgets for most public library systems have stayed level with no increase for inflation or expansion of service (50.6 percent). More than one-third of public library systems reported an increase in their technology budget (36.1 percent), while more than one in 10 systems reported a decrease (13.3 percent).
"Libraries connect communities with information and knowledge, but we must work together to ensure they stay connected for generations to come," said Martha Choe, director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Libraries program. "Libraries need ongoing support from government, businesses, foundations and citizens to pay for ongoing costs such as Internet access fees, technology upgrades, and technical assistance."
Public libraries rely on federal, state and local funds, as well as private donations to pay for computing services. The federal E-rate program, which helps offset telecommunications costs, has been credited with helping libraries purchase high-speed connectivity sooner than they could have afforded otherwise. Public libraries received approximately $60 million annually in E-rate discounts.
The FSU report reveals disparities in public library computer services between urban and rural communities and between states. Rural public libraries are much more likely to have lower levels of broadband connectivity, while libraries serving urban and high poverty areas are more likely to report an inadequate number of workstations for patrons.
Urban libraries also offer more technology training for patrons (64 percent) than rural libraries (16 percent). Seniors are the most likely of all audiences to receive technology training at libraries (57 percent), followed closely by people who do not have Internet access at home and adults seeking continuing education.
Training and distance learning require that public libraries have current technology and fast Internet connections; however, most libraries have no set upgrade schedule for hardware (70 percent) and no set schedule for software (77.4 percent). Many public libraries are continuing to increase the speed of their Internet connections and are exploring wireless Internet connectivity. Nearly 18 percent of public libraries have wireless Internet access, and 21 percent are planning wireless access within the next year. Chicago Public Library, which hosted the report release announcement, is one of those libraries. The library began offering free wireless in all 79 of its locations in the city in December 2004.
"U.S. public libraries have gained a tremendous amount of headway as it relates to connectivity and access," said John Bertot, co-author of the report, Associate Director of the Information Use Management and Policy Institute, and professor at Florida State University. "The challenge lies in ensuring that libraries continue to get the support they need to provide necessary improvements to the technology."
The American Library Association is the oldest and largest library association in the world, with more than 64,000 members. Its mission is to promote the highest quality library and information services and public access to information. ALA offers professional services and publications to members and nonmembers.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation works to promote greater equity in four areas: global health, education, public libraries, and support for at-risk families in Washington state. The Seattle-based foundation joins local, national, and international partners to ensure that advances in these areas reach those who need them most. The foundation is led by Bill Gates's father, William H. Gates, Sr., and Patty Stonesifer.
The Information Use Management and Policy Institute at Florida State University conducts research that focuses on the information user, and the interaction of the user with information products, services, policies, technologies, and organizations. Of special interest is the planning and evaluation of networked and other information services. The Institute also conducts information policy research on current issues at Federal and state levels related to public access, privacy, records management, and use of information in electronic forms as well as other topics.