Public Libraries and Internet Access across the United States: A Comparison by State 2004-2006

Article excerpt

Drawing upon findings from a national survey of U.S. public libraries, this paper examines trends in Internet and public computing access in public libraries across states from 2004 to 2006. Based on library-supplied information about levels and types of Internet and public computing access, the authors offer insights into the network-based content and services that public libraries provide. Examining data from 2004 to 2006 reveals trends and accomplishments in certain states and geographic regions. This paper details and discusses the data, identifies and analyzes issues related to Internet access, and suggests areas for future research.

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This article presents findings from the 2004 and 2006 Public Libraries and the Internet studies detailing the different levels of Internet access available in public libraries in different states. (1) At this point, 98.9 percent of public library branches are connected to the Internet and 98.4 percent of connected public library branches offer public Internet access. (2) However, the types of access and the quality of access available are not uniformly distributed among libraries or among the libraries in various states.

While the data at the national level paint a portrait of the Internet and public computing access provided by public libraries overall, studies of these differences among the states can help reveal successes and lessons that may help libraries in other states to increase their levels of access. The need to continue to increase the levels and quality of Internet and public computing access in public libraries is not an abstract problem. The services and content available on the Internet continue to require greater bandwidth and computing capacity, so public libraries must address ever-increasing technological demands on the Internet and computing access that they provide. (3)

Public libraries are also facing increased external pressure on their Internet and computing access. As patrons have come to rely on the availability of Internet and computing access in public libraries, so too have government agencies. Many federal, state, and local government agencies now rely on public libraries to facilitate citizens' access to e-government services, such as applying for the federal prescription drug plans, filing taxes, and many other interactions with the government. (4) Further, public libraries also face increased demands to supply public access computing in times of natural disasters, such as the major hurricanes of 2004 and 2005. (5) As a result, both patrons and government agencies depend on the Internet and computing access provided by public libraries, and each group has different, but interrelated, expectations of what kinds of access public libraries should provide. However, the data indicate that public libraries are at capacity in meeting some of these expectations, while some libraries lack the funding, technology-support capacity, space, and infrastructure (e.g., power, cabling) to reach the expectations of each respective group.

As public libraries (and the Internet and public computing access they provide) continue to fill more social roles and expectations, a range of new ideas and strategies can be considered by public libraries to identify successful methods for providing access that is high quality and sufficient to meet the needs of patrons and community. The goals of the Public Libraries and the Internet studies have been to help provide an understanding of the issues and needs of libraries associated with providing Internet-based services and resources.

The 2006 Public Libraries and the Internet study employed a Web-based survey approach to gather both quantitative and qualitative data from a sample of the 16,457 public library outlets in the United States. (6) A sample was drawn to accurately represent metropolitan status (roughly equating to their designation of urban, suburban, or rural libraries), poverty levels (as derived through census data), state libraries, and the national picture, producing a sample of 6,979 public library outlets. …