Report: Libraries serve up Internet access

Almost all public libraries offer free access to computers and the Internet, but there are signs of cracks in continuing quality service and sustaining programs, a new study released last week states.

According to the “Public Libraries and the Internet 2004” study, 99.6 percent of all public libraries are connected to the Internet, and of those, 98.9 percent offer public access computing for patrons. This is a major accomplishment considering that 10 years ago, only 20.9 percent of public libraries offered Internet service.

The report identifies three major areas of investment beginning in 1997: federal grants for technology and planning through the Library Services and Technology Act; e-rate discounts for telecommunications infrastructure and connectivity; and state and local funding, including foundation support.

The report is based on a study conducted by Florida State University’s Information Use Management and Policy Institute and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the American Library Association.

But the study also highlights libraries’ struggles to meet public demand. For example, they don’t have enough space and money for the computers they need. More than 85 percent of libraries report not meeting demand for computers consistently or at certain times of the day.

Additionally, the study indicates:

• Although 50.6 percent of library officials said their technology budgets remained the same from the previous year, 13.3 percent reported a decline.

• High-speed connectivity is unevenly distributed across libraries and sometimes insufficient for certain bandwidth-intensive applications. Overall, 42 percent of libraries reported connection speeds of 769 kilobits per second. Specifically, urban libraries provide much greater speeds than libraries located in rural areas.

• Libraries also provide technology training to children, seniors and those without Internet access at home, but only 28 percent report doing that on a regular basis.

• Most libraries don’t have plans for upgrading systems. Nearly 70 percent have no established upgrade schedule for hardware, 77.4 percent have no schedule for software and 96.4 percent have none for connection speed.

• Nearly 40 percent of all libraries filter their public-access Internet connectivity, which limits access to some content.

• Nearly 18 percent of public libraries provide wireless Internet access and 21 percent are planning such service in the next year.

The report touches on future issues facing public libraries. One is the political climate following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The report states that libraries have to address new issues of recordkeeping and privacy. Secondly, many librarians feel they are put into a position of supporting patrons’ rights to free expression vs. monitoring what they are doing online. And lastly, governments are redirecting public resources, such as library funding, to support national priorities on security and terrorism. The study’s authors wrote that library officials need to rethink the federal policy framework that supports public libraries.

“For libraries to better advocate for their needs and the needs of their patrons, they must move from a reactive to a proactive stance in addressing issues of national policy,” the report states. “Viewing these legislative changes holistically, the public library community will be better able to reassess its priorities and abilities in the new policy environment.”


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