The Urban Libraries Council is leading a nationwide coalition to develop benchmarks for access to technology in public libraries.

The council joined forces with the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) and more than 10 other organizations earlier this year to begin the first phase of the benchmark development initiative. Through a $2.8 million grant funded through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the ICMA will support the benchmark design and lead the pilot in local communities.

Although the benchmarks are still being defined, the groups anticipate the standards will cover wait times for public computers, broadband access speeds and other related issues.

The benchmarks will help public libraries develop technology policies, as well as plan and budget for the technology they need to maintain high-quality services, said Sheila Murphy, senior program manager of the Urban Libraries Council.

Just more than a decade ago, free access to computers and the Internet at a public library was a rare commodity, but now more than a third of Americans ages 14 and older use library Internet computers — and for the poor, the percentage is much greater, according to a 2010 study from the University of Washington Information School and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

“The presence of technology has grown exponentially; the use of technology has grown exponentially,” Murphy said. “And I think libraries have done a valiant job of keeping pace with this innovation in public library service, but it’s an innovation that needs to be continuously improved and maintained.”

One issue the ICMA is exploring is tying benchmarks for computer wait times to a community’s demographics. Communities with a high unemployment rate or high percentage of low-income residents create a need for more public Internet access, said Ron Carlee, the ICMA’s chief operating officer. Because different communities may have different needs, creating flexible assessment tools will help public libraries determine how many Internet computers the libraries should have and what the waiting period should be based on those demographics.

“The most important thing we want to see achieved is objective knowledge and assessment tools that local governments can use so that they can figure out where they stand in their community,” Carlee said.

The coalition is currently in phase one of the three-phase process to complete the benchmarks. It plans to draft prototype benchmarks and collect feedback from local government leaders and the library field, then starting next fall, the ICMA will test an initial set of benchmarks in California, Oklahoma and Texas communities. Once refined, the benchmarks are projected to be launched for broad use in spring 2012, according to the Urban Libraries Council.

Although the benchmark development heavily focuses on computers and Internet in public libraries, the initiative is not connected to E-Rate, a government program created in 1997 to provide discounts on telecommunications, Internet access and internal networking for public libraries as well as public and private schools.

Sarah Rich, Staff Writer Sarah Rich  |  Staff Writer

In 2008, Sarah Rich graduated from California State University, Chico, where she majored in news-editorial journalism and minored in sociology. Since 2010, Sarah has written for Government Technology magazine and covers a spectrum of public-sector IT topics, including cloud computing, transparency, broadband, and other innovative projects and trends. She currently lives in Sacramento, Calif.