Report: Public Libraries Offer More Online Services

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Use your library card online to explore the “Hidden Web”

You’ve got your notebooks. You’ve got your backpack. The school bell has rung, and now it’s time for the homework to start piling up.

Your family may visit the local public library in person to check out books, use a computer or ask for help from a librarian…but you may not know that you can also visit your library from your home computer.

The 2008 Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study finds that America’s public libraries are breaking through brick-and-mortar walls to serve more people online and in person. More than 83 percent now offer online homework resources, including live tutors and collections of reliable Web sources – serving the educational needs of more than 41 million school-age children.

Just like your library buys books that you can then check out for free, it also buys online subscriptions you can use for free with your library card. These sites, sometimes called the “Hidden Web” because the usual search engines can’t access them, can be found at your library’s Web site or through your public library computers. These online library resources are safe, accurate, free and often available 24/7.

The American Library Association’s (ALA) Great Web Sites for Kids Committee, which evaluates Web sites to find excellent resources for children, recommended a few favorite “Hidden Web” sites that many libraries offer.

Every library is different, but here are a few recommendations you might try:

America the Beautiful (Grolier Passport)
Readily accessible and attractive. A basic overview of state-by-state information comes with particularly helpful summaries of state symbols, population statistics and forms of government. Teachers and librarians will want to fill in some gaps, as the information is introductory.

These sites provide animated educational videos featuring the sites’ characters Tim and Moby, as well as quizzes, activities and resources for parents and teachers. All core subject areas are covered with many subtopics in each.

Encyclopaedia Britannica Online School Edition
Default search provides separated results for elementary, middle, and high school articles. The site also includes a dictionary and thesaurus, as well as journal articles and videos/photos.

Grolier Online Encyclopedia
Grolier was chosen by the ALA Notable Software committee two years in a row as an excellent subscription Web site. It has so much more than just encyclopedia articles – including video, photos, audio and Web site links. Grolier is very user-friendly and engages users so they want to return to it again and again.

Infotrac/Infotrac Junior Edition/Kids Infobits (Gale)
Consisting of articles from magazines, journals, and newspapers, as well as links and transcripts to NPR broadcasts, students will find these useful for research. Many articles are available in full-text. The various editions provide appropriate resources for each age level.

McGraw-Hill’s AccessScience
In addition to McGraw-Hill’s Encyclopedia of Science and Technology, this site also offers biographies, photos, videos and up-to-date research articles. You can search or browse through this Web site. Recommended for middle and high school students.

Searchasaurus (EBSCO)
A good choice for new Web searchers. Visual and tradition searching are available. Includes Primary Search, Middle Search Plus, Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopedia, and EBSCO Animals. Recommended for upper elementary and middle school students.

World Book Online
The familiar quality and clarity of the print version of World Book also are found in the online version with the added advantage of the ability to link to “see also” and related references almost instantly. Helpful appendices include “books to read” sections on report writing, study skills, maps and photographs.

Teachers and parents might also like to try these at the library:
Designed to help teachers and librarians help young people connect to books. Includes audio readings of book, author, web sites, projectable author programs filmed in the author’s own home. Customized reports for educators. Thousands of thematic booklists and links to book-related websites.

NoveList K-8
Contains a wealth of information about books for young people: reading lists, awards winners, searchable database by genre, grade level. Lexile numbers included.

Not sure where your library is? Find it here. Not sure how to get started or what resources might be the most helpful with your project? Ask your librarian! He or she can point you in the right direction and help you get started.

Great Web Sites for Kids is an initiative of the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), a division of the American Library Association (ALA). You can find more Great Web Sites here.

A new study clearly finds that America’s public libraries are breaking through traditional brick-and-mortar walls to serve more people online and in person.

America’s 16,543 public library buildings are leveraging technology to help children succeed in school and support lifelong learning. More than 83 percent now offer online homework resources, including live tutors and collections of reliable Web sources—up 15 percent in one year, according to “Libraries Connect Communities: Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study 2007-2008.”

The study, conducted by the American Library Association (ALA) and the Information Use Management and Policy Institute at Florida State University (FSU), shows today’s libraries are partners in learning—providing free access to expensive online resources that would otherwise be out of reach for most families, said ALA President Jim Rettig.

picture of library internet users

“As people change the ways they meet their educational, entrepreneurial and entertainment needs, libraries also change,” Rettig said. “Your library card is the smartest card you own—online, as well as in person.”

Samuel Mutch found this out when he logged on to’s Live Homework Help® through the Natrona County Public Library Web site in Casper, Wyo. He struggled with writing assignments and had a major research paper due in his seventh-grade English class. A live tutor was able to help him with his grammar and organizing the paper. “I got my best grade ever on that paper, and I could chat with a real tutor online just like I do with my friends,” he said. “The library has a lot of good stuff online.”

Students of all ages also can talk to librarians online, read full-text newspapers, take practice exams and research paper topics. The report found that 88 percent of all libraries and 98 percent of urban libraries offer subscription databases in virtually every subject—including history, literature and science—and area of interest, such as genealogy, auto repair and investing.

Libraries also reported increases in providing:

  • Audiobooks and podcasts (available in 71 percent of U.S. public libraries);
  • Digital reference via email, IM and chat (62.5 percent);
  • e-books (52 percent);
  • Video (49 percent); and
  • Online instructional courses (43 percent).

“Libraries Connect Communities” found that 73 percent of libraries (and 83 percent of rural libraries) are the only source of free public access to computers and the Internet in their communities. This access has become even more important as families across the country struggle economically. As a result, many libraries have begun reporting double-digit growth in computer usage in 2008.

“Public libraries connect people to books, technology and educational programs—in the building and online—so they can remain informed and engaged citizens,” said Jill Nishi, deputy director of the U.S. Libraries initiative of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which helped fund the study. “Local governments, businesses and private foundations must work together and help libraries secure and sustain the funding they need to continue to meet their communities’ unique needs.” As online content and information becomes more important, library staff time dedicated to helping people get and use online tools is mounting. Library staff reported that, on average, they spend 50 percent or more of their time managing technology and helping patrons learn how to use it effectively, according to “Libraries Connect Communities.” Almost three-quarters of libraries offer training in everything from researching on the Internet to computer software applications to how to use your digital camera.

Additional study findings include:

  • 66 percent of public libraries offer free wireless access, up about 12 percent over last year;
  • Almost two-thirds of all public libraries provide 1.5Mbps or faster Internet access speeds, with a continuing disparity between urban (90 percent) and rural libraries (51.5 percent);
  • 74 percent of libraries report their staff helps patrons understand and use e-government services, including enrolling in Medicare and applying for unemployment; and
  • Urban library branches offer an average of 21 computers, suburban 14 and rural libraries 7.5—all up slightly from last year. One in five libraries still report there are fewer computers than patrons who wish to use them throughout the day.

An estimated 71 million people visit their public library online each year. Get your library card and check out everything your library has to offer – in person and online.

To view the final report, please visit

See also: "Your Library Card: A Great Value".