Public Libraries & Technology

Overview

Technology helps libraries do what they do best: connect people with resources and ideas – including books, virtual reference, e-books, and training. Freedom of information is fundamental to the American way of life, and free and full access sets us apart from many countries. Our nation’s system of 16,604 public libraries ensures all people may find the information they need and want—in print or online.

The library is chock full of technology, from printers and copiers, to computers and Wi-Fi access. Many libraries are now open online 24/7, with subscription databases, downloadable e-books and audio books, searchable catalogs, and more via the library Web site. Many libraries allow people to search the catalog and place holds on books they can then pick up at their closest branch.

Libraries also are many Americans’ only free outlet for Internet access. Nationally, over 64 percent of libraries report that they are their community’s only free source of Internet access—in some states that percentage is as high as 82 percent . Technology fluency has become critical to many aspects of our lives in America. With increased E-government services, online job applications, and distance learning, the need for technology access grows.

“The library (Abington Community Library, PA) was able to offer me a wealth of valuable resources that are not only free, but also extremely helpful in my job search.  The library offered me up-to-date computers with fast Internet service and printing capabilities.  I also was given valuable advice and assistance from the friendly library staff.  One of the staff members actually informed me of the resource that ultimately led me to finding a job in my field.  I am also extremely grateful to the library staff for their encouragement and support throughout my job search.” -- Bethany Pisanchyn

Libraries are Technology Hubs

 

Internet Services Available through U.S. Public Libraries
Licensed databases 99.8%
Homework resources 87%
Audio content (e.g. audiobooks, podcasts) 82.8%
Digital/virtual Reference 66.9%
e-books 67.2%
Video content 61.3%
Online instructional courses/tutorials 58.1%
Digitized special collections 46.1%
Web/business conferencing 10.4%

 

  • Public libraries offer an average of 16 public computers for users per building.
  • Nearly all public libraries (99.3 percent) offer public access to the Internet.
  • Many public libraries (85.7 percent) offer wireless (Wi-Fi) access.
  • Public libraries offer a number of training classes or as needed assistance on a range of topics, particularly Internet use (93.5 percent), general computer skills (92.9 percent), online web searching (81.9 percent), and software use (79.5 percent).

In addition to the offerings of Internet search engines, the library subscribes to databases and provides online catalogs. These resources provide access to millions of pieces of information, assistance with home work, English as a Second Language resources, and test preparation for the SAT, the civil service exam, and nursing and cosmetology schools, to name a few. Because they are online, access to many of these resources also are available through the library Web site at home, work, or school.

In addition to the hardware and software, 72 percent of libraries provide one-on-one assistance and classes to support users of technology in the library. For first-time users, a computer is only as good as the library staff available to orient them – including how to use a mouse, how to open an e-mail account and how to search the Internet effectively. High-tech users can take advantage of specialized electronic resources, download audiobooks, reserve a book through the online catalog at midnight or even take a class in Web 2.0.

“The knowledge of Windows I gained through the library classes (at Rocky River Public Library, OH) carried over to the applications I currently work with at the Cleveland Clinic. It allowed me to combine my health care knowledge with technology knowledge to get hired as a Nursing Informatics Specialist.” -- Barbara Mattia-Pempus

Benefits of Technology in the Library

A 2006 study commissioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation found that 71 percent of people using public libraries cite the library as their primary source of access to a computer and the Internet . About 40 percent of American households lack home Internet access.  For families with incomes under $24,999, those without home access can rise to as much as 75 percent without access, and for Black and Hispanic households the increase is 65.1 percent and 56.7 percent, respectively. Employment status of the household also makes a difference; 70.7 percent of employed households maintain Internet service in the home, compared with 55.6 percent of unemployed households. As unemployment spreads and household incomes drop, public Internet services at libraries increases in value and importance.

With more technology in libraries, patrons also have better and faster access to information, the ability to stay connected to family and friends, and opportunities to explore the world. For example, local entrepreneurs can develop business plans, network, conduct market research, and explore business opportunities using library collections and resources. Farmers living in rural areas can take online classes to earn certificates and degrees in agriculture and business. Students can use test preparation materials from the library to prepare for the SAT or GRE, or even enroll in and take classes online at the library.

Barriers to Technology Access

Although libraries and their staffs work to use technology to deliver and expand resources to their patrons, they are challenged on many fronts. A majority of public library buildings are 25-50 years old, and 40 percent of library buildings are estimated to be in fair or poor condition. Because these buildings predate the Internet, they are not well-equipped for the needed electrical and cabling to support multiple computers and Internet connections. In fact, 54 percent of libraries report this is a factor in their ability to add computers. Library construction and configuration also may complicate a library’s ability to affordably implement Wi-Fi access.

Despite increased demand for library computers, libraries typically have not seen a corresponding increase in budgets, and many are challenged to provide enough computers or fast-enough connection speeds to meet demand. In fact, eight out of 10 libraries report they do not have enough computers to meet demand some or all of the time. And, despite overall gains, rural library connectivity speeds lag significantly behind urban and suburban libraries. While 86.3 percent of their urban counterparts have speeds greater than 1.5 Mbps only 49.6 percent of rural libraries can say the same.

Conclusion

Visits Library graph

In defiance of conventional wisdom, library use has increased as libraries embraced technology and the Internet, not decreased. In the past decade library use has risen and the number of adults with library cards has risen. Libraries have Web sites and are reaching out to patrons outside of the physical buildings.  From providing a more diverse collection of information, more new technology like e-books and downloadable audio books, technology training, and educational and recreational gaming, libraries are working to meet the greater technology demands of patrons. To find out what resources are available for you through your public library, visit their Web site.  
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i  Libraries Connect Communities 3: Public Library Funding and Technology Access Study. Chicago: American Library Association, 2009. http://www.ala.org/plinternetfunding

ii  National Telecommunication & Information Administration. “Broadband in America: 2007.” January 31, 2008. http://www.ntia.doc.gov/reports/2008/NetworkedNation.html