Sustained funding, broadband improvements needed to meet increased demand.
With national unemployment topping 9 percent and many Americans seeking online information and new technology skills that can help keep them and their families afloat in hard times, U.S. public libraries are first responders in a time of economic uncertainty.
“Libraries Connect Communities 3: Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study 2008-2009,” a new report released today by the American Library Association (ALA), says libraries are serving as crucial technology hubs for people in need of free Web access, computer training, and assistance finding and using E-Government and job resources.
The study finds that more than 71 percent of all libraries (and 79 percent of rural libraries) report they are the only source of free access to computers and the Internet in their communities. Sixty-six percent of public libraries rank job-seeking services, including resume writing and Internet job searches, among the most crucial online services they offer – up from 44 percent two years ago. In a separate survey, 80 percent of New York libraries indicated they helped someone search for a job in late 2008.
When county workforce development agency DavidsonWorks (N.C.) was investigating ways to better serve displaced workers, they looked to the Davidson County Library System for support. “The numbers of people that need services are larger than our capacity,” said Executive Director Nancy Borrell. “The library is a natural partner – they are located in all corners of the county and have the space, computers and trained library staff we need. We’re reaching areas of the county we’ve never been able to reach before.”
More people also are turning to libraries to file unemployment forms, apply for Food Stamps or find other government information or services. Eighty percent of libraries report helping patrons connect with government information and services online.
“For anyone without a computer, you’re really out of luck without the library,” said Elsie Werdin, who spent almost two weeks trying to get the information she needed to enroll herself and her husband in a Medicare plan that would cover her husband’s expensive medications. With assistance from the Pasco County Library System (Fla.) e-government librarian, she was able to complete an online Medicare enrollment form in less than 30 minutes. The Pasco library provided e-government services to more than 9,100 people from October 2008 to March 31, 2009, up 177 percent over the same period one year ago.
“Libraries are part of the solution for Americans struggling to regain their footing in uncertain economic times. Most jobs, and many government services, require that people fill out online applications at a time when many people lack home Internet access and the necessary online search, software or even basic keyboard skills,” said ALA President Camila Alire. “Investing in our libraries is key to ensuring every person has access to vital online information and resources.”
While libraries across the country have reported significant spikes in patron usage over the past 12-18 months, many are struggling to maintain hours and staffing levels to meet demand as funding cuts at the state and local level loom large. Forty-four percent of states reported declines in state funding for public libraries in FY2009 – in some cases as much as 25 or 30 percent. These cuts often are compounded by declining or flat funding at the local level. Fourteen percent of libraries reported FY2009 declines.
“Libraries serve as community technology centers for millions of Americans every day,” said Jill Nishi, deputy director of the U.S. Libraries Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a funder of the study. “But their role during the current downturn emphasizes how important it is for local communities to fund and sustain high-quality online access at their libraries so it’s available for all people when they need it most.”
To meet growing demand, many library agencies are applying for federal stimulus funds through the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP), which would help enable libraries to strategically address Internet infrastructure, hardware and patron needs. With the BTOP emphasis on community partnerships, libraries also are ideal public partners with telecom companies and other government agencies. Nearly 60 percent of libraries report Internet connection speeds are insufficient to meet patron demand at some point in the day.
Additional key findings on the state of Internet availability in public libraries include.
* More than 90 percent of public libraries provide technology training such as online job-seeking and career-related classes, general Internet and computer use instruction;
* 76 percent of public libraries offer free wireless access; and
* 81 percent of public libraries report there are not enough public Internet computers to meet patron demand some or all of the time; increasingly, libraries are having trouble replacing outdated computer workstations due to cost.
The Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study is conducted by the ALA; the Center for Library & Information Innovation at the University of Maryland (UMCP); and the Information Institute at Florida State University (FSU). The study, funded by the ALA and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, offers the most current national data available on technology access and funding in U.S. public libraries. To view the final report, please visit www.ala.org/plinternetfunding.