Public libraries struggle with internet demands

New studies by the American Library Association (ALA) and the Public Library Association (PLA) find that America’s public libraries are serving more people online, including students. But as more patrons demand access to internet resources, libraries are struggling to keep up with this demand–and they say they need more funding, infrastructure, and staff.

One study, "Libraries Connect Communities: Public Library Funding and Technology Access Study 2007-2008," conducted by the ALA and the Information Use Management and Policy Institute at Florida State University with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, found that 73 percent of all 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, the report says. As a result, many libraries have begun reporting double-digit growth in computer usage in 2008.

A key finding of the study is that more and more students are using public libraries for online homework help and other key assistance.

A recent poll conducted for the ALA by Harris Interactive, which surveyed 1,262 youths between the ages of eight and 18 on their library use, found that 31 percent visit the public library more than 10 times a year.

According to the "Libraries Connect Communities" study, public libraries reported increases in providing audio books and podcasts (available in 71 percent of U.S. public libraries); digital reference via eMail, instant messaging, and chat (62.5 percent); eBooks (52 percent); video (49 percent); and online instructional courses (43 percent).

Libraries have increased their connection speeds to allow for more internet services, yet more than half of libraries say their access speed is inadequate to meet community demands.

As one librarian stated, "Our IT department looked at our bandwidth (1.5 Mbps) and found that at 2 p.m., it was slower than dial-up, we had so many people using it."

Applications such as multimedia and distance education, combined with near-constant online use and shared wireless and desktop connections, strain available bandwidth in public libraries–which has important implications for education. For instance, the Delaware Country Library System in Pennsylvania delayed offering an online tutoring service for students until its 1.5 Mbps connection was upgraded to fiber optics earlier this year.

Another challenge libraries face is flat local funding. In response, many libraries have shifted to "soft" funding sources–fees or fines, donations, and grants–as a way to support public computing services.

The report found that staffing levels–both for staff who provide training and other direct patron services, as well as for staff who maintain IT infrastructure–are not keeping pace with patron demand. Libraries cite the need for greater staff expertise and availability as a barrier to supporting and managing access to technology.

Other problems include lagging IT support, shortage of IT-knowledgeable staff, limited funding for hiring trained staff, and ill-equipped buildings and infrastructure.

For example, more than three-quarters of libraries, or 78 percent, reported that space limitations are a key factor when considering adding public-access computers. Another 36 percent reported the lack of available electrical outlets, cabling, or other infrastructure as a barrier–up from 31 percent in 2006-07.

In response to these challenges, many public libraries have added wireless internet access to support patrons bringing their own computers to the library, or to support laptop check-out programs for in-library users.

"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 and Melinda Gates Foundation. "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."


"Libraries Connect Communities" ALA study

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the Keeping Online Learning Secure resource center. Online learning is becoming increasingly popular, especially as fuel costs force schools to consider shortened schedules and have college students opting for virtual classes to save money. But while interest and enrollment in virtual classrooms rises, so do concerns about security while students are learning online. School IT staff already work around the clock to make sure their systems are secure and reliable; they can’t afford to have school networks vulnerable to attacks from outside—or from curious students who believe they are honing their tech expertise. Go to: Keeping Online Learning Secure

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