Despite our best efforts, the question "do we need libraries now that we have the internet?" continues to plague the library community. The 2007 Public Library Funding and Technology Access Study, published this month, is part of the arsenal of tools public libraries and their advocates can use to illustrate how libraries connect communities.
Funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and ALA, the study builds on more than a decade of research conducted by John Carlo Bertot and Charles McClure of Florida State University to provide the most complete national picture of computer and internet access in U.S. public libraries:
* 73% of libraries report they are the only provider of free public internet access in their communities.
* On average, there are 10.7 public access computers in each library branch. This number has remained relatively constant for the past five years.
* About 62% of library branches now have connectivity speeds of 769 kilobytes per second (kbps) up to 1.5 megabytes per second (mbps) or greater. This is virtually unchanged from 2006, but up significantly from 47.7% in 2004.
* On average, 76.2% of libraries offer technology training (classes), ranging from 87.5% for urban libraries to 69.2% for rural libraries.
The most significant change over the past year was the growth in free wireless connectivity available in libraries--up to 54.2% overall in 2007 compared with 36.7% in 2006 and 17.9% in 2004. Another 17.4% of libraries reported they planned to make wireless available in the coming year. Wireless access is most prevalent in the Northeast: New Jersey (83.7%), Maine (77.9%), New York (69.8%), and Vermont (67.3%) lead all states. Ohio (66.7%) and Indiana (63.8%) also ranked high.
Unfortunately, the gap between urban and rural libraries has widened considerably over the past three years. Now 66.8% of urban libraries report offering wireless, compared to 45.8% of rural libraries. In 2004, the disparity was less than 3%. Geographic isolation and cost factors may account for part of this gap, but feedback from state library staff and site visits also point to a lack of technology expertise, IT support, and adequate staffing levels for many rural libraries.
Another issue to watch is whether increased access for a greater number of users (as long as they have their own laptop) means slower access speeds for everyone. For the first time, the study asked if the wireless and wired internet connections shared the same bandwidth, and nearly half of respondents answered "yes." About 17% said "no" and 10% didn't know. Less than half of respondents (43.6%) reported that their connection speeds were sufficient to meet patron needs at all times, down from 53.5% a year ago.
Internet-based services grow
In addition to wireless, there also was small growth (ranging from 0.4 to 7.2%) in these internet-based services provided by public libraries:
* 85.6% offer licensed databases
* 68.1% homework resources
* 57.7% digital/virtual reference
* 38.3% audio content
* 38.0% e-books
The greatest increase was in the area of homework resources, which is consistent with what libraries reported as the service most critical to the role of public libraries--that of providing education resources and databases for K--12 students. Second most critical was providing services for job seekers.
There were double-digit disparities between urban and rural libraries in each of these categories, with the greatest gap in providing e-books (67.2% of urban libraries and 30% of rural libraries) and the smallest gap in providing homework resources (77% compared to 64.6%).
An emerging area identified in the 2006 Public Libraries and the Internet study was the library's role in providing e-government services. …