Community Access & Public Libraries

Public libraries are a key social institution in many American communities. They provide access to and assistance with diverse informational and recreational resources. Today especially, libraries play and will continue to play a vital role as community access points for computers, the Internet, and Internet-enabled services.1 These publicly accessible services are especially critical in an environment where a significant percentage of Internet users do not have access to the Internet at home, school, or work.2 The 2011-2012 Public Library Funding and Technology Access Study found that:
3

  • 100% of public libraries offer free public Internet access

  • 64.5% of public libraries report they are the only free provider of Internet access in their community

  • 90.5% of public libraries offer Wi-Fi

  • 60.2% of libraries reported increased usage of workstations over the previous year

Public Access Technology in Libraries

Almost all public libraries (99.3%) offer some form of free public Internet access. More significantly, public libraries report being the only provider of free public access to computers and the Internet in 64.5% of communities in the United States. (see Figure 1) Additionally, 90.5% of public libraries offer free wireless (Wi-Fi) access for users. In addition to the computer workstations and Internet connection, two-thirds of library computer users receive assistance in using the computer or Internet.4

Libraries provide access to and training for a range of technologies and online resources. These community access services include, but are by no means limited to, databases, homework resources, audiovisual content and e-books, and digital reference services. 99.1% of public libraries provide access to databases, and 81.9% provide access to homework resources.

To facilitate access to online resources, public libraries average 16.4 public workstations,  a 2.5% increase over the past year. Almost half (45%) of all visitors to public libraries use the library’s Internet access, making it one of the most-used public library services.5

Opportunities for content generation are another area wherein public libraries play an important role. Almost all (93.2%) of public libraries allow the use of portable drives or other storage devices, and two-thirds (64.4%) support the use of digital cameras and other content manipulation options.

Key Issues and Challenges

In the current economic climate, libraries are facing numerous challenges in the provision of community access to the Internet. Increased usage of public library services are reported across the board, especially in terms of public workstations, wireless access, electronic resources, and training. 60.2% of libraries reported an increase of workstations over the past year, and 74.1% reported an increase in wireless usage.

In the face of these demands, 64.1% of libraries report having an insufficient number of workstations some or all of the time. The problems of access are exacerbated by decreased funding and the resulting decreased hours of operation. Unlike the previous year where 15.9% of all libraries reported decreased hours, a significant majority of libraries, 83.7% report that their hours have remained static. (see Figure 2). Libraries also face numerous long-term challenges in terms of maintaining and updating workstations and improving community Internet access.  Libraries concerns for 2011 remain the same as in 2010, with noted challenges in terms of increased cost, limited physical space, limited capacity for outlets and wiring, and limited connectivity speeds (see Figure 3).

Conclusion

Internet access is critical for communities and individuals to achieve success in the 21st century. Information is increasingly available online, including job information and applications, government programs and social service programs, and educational offerings at all levels. With the economic downturn, access to free recreational materials online or in an electronic format is in increasing demand.6 Providing access to free Internet service is a key role libraries must play in their communities.

References

1 Bertot, J.C., Sigler, K., McDermott, A., DeCoster, E., Katz, S., Langa, L.A., & Grimes, J.M. (2011). 2010-2011 Public Library Funding and Technology Access Survey: Survey Findings and Results. Information Policy and Access Center: University of Maryland. Available: http://www.plinternetsurvey.org.

2 National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). 2002. A nation online: Internet use in America. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce.

3 Bertot et al. (2011). 

4 Becker, S., Crandall, M. D., Fisher, K. E., Kinney, B., Landry, C., and Rocha, A. 2010. Opportunity for all: How the American Public benefits from Internet access at U.S. libraries. Washington, DC: Institute of Museum and Library Services.

5 Becker et al. (2010).

Bertot, J. C., Jaeger, P. T., McClure, C. R., Wright, C. B., & Jensen, E. (2009). Public libraries and the Internet 2008–2009: Issues, implications, and challenges. First Monday, 14(11). Available: http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/viewArticle/2700/2351.