Technology in Libraries Critical to Unemployment Turnaround, Access to Social Services, Study Finds

While demand for technology services is up, spending is down at urban libraries, closing doors to the neediest.

by / June 30, 2010

As government agencies push what have traditionally been paper-based processes and services online, public libraries are seeing more demand for access to technology so that citizens can interact with their government. But there's a catch-22: Public libraries are faced with reduced funding and shorter operating hours.

A report released this month shows that while the public is increasingly using the Internet at libraries for job and e-government resources, funding cuts at state and local levels are forcing libraries to "literally lock away access to these resources as they reduce operating hours."

Conducted by the American Library Association (ALA) and the Center for Library and Information Innovation at the University of Maryland, the annual study provides a "state of the library" report on technology resources libraries offer and funding that enables free access to these critical resources. The 2009-2010 Public Library Funding and Technology Access Study can be found here.

"Computers and Internet access at public libraries connect millions of Americans to economic, educational and social opportunity each year, but libraries struggle to replace aging computer workstations and provide the high-speed Internet connections patrons need," Jill Nishi, deputy director of U.S. Libraries at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said in a press release. The foundation funded the study along with the ALA. "As demand for these services rise, public and private investment to support public access technology at libraries is more critical than ever."

The continual depletion of local and state tax bases -- resulting in large part from high unemployment rates (reduced income tax revenue), the troubled housing market (decreased property tax) and declines in sales tax receipts -- has seriously affected 45 states and the District of Columbia, the report says. The problem has trickled down to public library funding.

For example, the study found that nearly 15 percent of libraries (or roughly 2,400 locations) reported reduced operating hours, with "urban libraries" leading the trend -- with nearly one-quarter of them reporting fewer hours in 2009. Also, 55 percent of urban libraries reported funding cuts in fiscal 2010, the report stated.

"Unfortunately what happens is even while libraries have been able to stabilize their technology investments, they're just not available to the community because the doors are closed," said ALA Office for Research and Statistics project manager Laura Clark, who also edited and contributed to the study. "The level of skill and engagement that's required to survive, let alone thrive online, is really significant and our libraries are on the front line of seeing that."

Some statistical highlights from the report include:

  • Libraries report a greater number of Internet computers available to the public in 2010 -- 14.2 on average per library branch (up from 11 one year ago).
  • The vast majority (82 percent) of libraries provide Wi-Fi access. 
  • Close to one-quarter of all libraries improved Internet connection speeds last year, often aided by E-Rate discounts. 
  • Public computer and Wi-Fi use increased last year for more than 70 percent of libraries. 
  • Eighty-eight percent of libraries provide free access to job databases and other job opportunity resources.

And at a time of high unemployment and more people depending on government social services to get by, libraries are seeing more paper forms becoming available online only. "From unemployment benefits to state tax forms, more government information and services are moving online, often without a print alternative," the ALA press release said.

Government agencies are increasingly referring people to their local public libraries for assistance and Internet access for citizen-government interactions, without providing financial support to libraries in meeting this need, the report said.

"To get any kind of government form now, you have

to go online," a rural Tennessee library director told the authors of the report. "There's a real segment of society I think is kind of getting lost in all the technology. And we're really about the only place they can get computer access."

The shift to online-only government services disproportionately affects the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder and represents a huge challenge for many social services recipients, a March 2010 FCC-funded study said. "Those who require social service support the most are consistently the least likely to be able to afford either a working computer or home access and the most likely to need help accomplishing tasks online," it said.

And while younger people tend to be more Web- and tech-savvy, there remains a misconception that "not only does everyone have a home computer and Internet access, but that they also have the skills to navigate all this information online," Clark said.

While the ALA report has made public the losses of publically available services, it also shone a light on the future and possible solutions. For example, while libraries in general report budget reductions in the 2010 fiscal year and expect little improvement in fiscal 2011, funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is anticipated to improve access to technology at some public libraries.

The National Broadband Plan and its underlying research specifically noted the roles public libraries play in their communities as Internet access points, digital literacy labs and sites for e-government deployment. "Indeed, the plan recommends that the public library community should request that Congress provide additional support for digital literacy and improved computing and connectivity," the plan said.

Communities are also rallying around their libraries and supporting measures that would increase local funding, Clark said. "Not only is public demand for library services increasing, but we're also hearing that people are better understanding the value and are supporting these services," she said. "We understand that state and local governments are challenged with their budgets right now, but we also know that libraries are part of the solution in moving our communities forward."

Executive summary of the report


Karen Wilkinson

Karen is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.