The Great Equalizers - Libraries and Internet Access

Those who cannot afford online access or don't need it often enough to subscribe to an Internet provider often turn to public libraries.

by / July 31, 1995
Aug 95

Level of Govt: Local

Function: Libraries

Problem/situation: Local libraries need online access.

Solution: Federal grants, budgeting and partnerships.

Jurisdiction/Agencies: Carnegie Library; National Telecommunications and Information Administration; Sacramento, Calif., Public Library; Maryland; Georgia; North Carolina; Congress; Charlotte-Mecklenburg County, N.C., Public Library

Vendors: Pacific Bell

Contact: American Library Association 800/545-2433.

By Brian Miller

Features Editor

In some ways, the local library isn't what it used to be. Because online information has gone mainstream, books and bound periodicals aren't enough to fulfill the needs of today's information-hungry patrons.

Because a public library's basic mission is to store and index information for access by the public, libraries are increasingly adding online access to the Internet. The importance of plugging in is expected to grow as the public continues to embrace easy-to-use software for navigating the Internet. And not plugging in could have serious consequences for libraries.

"The ability to meet our mission in the community would suffer," said Dan Iddings, assistant director of Networked and Automated Services at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. "What makes it vitally important is that it may be the only place in town where patrons can have access to the Internet."

Those who cannot afford online access or don't need it often enough to subscribe to an Internet provider often turn to libraries.

"Libraries have been a traditional equalizer," said Patricia Glass Schuman of the American Library Association (ALA). "It is a free institution where anyone can go in and get information."

But there is another reason online access is important. Increasingly, federal and state government agencies are providing some data in electronic form only. Without Internet access at a public library, only a minority of the country would be able to get the government data.


A survey published in June 1994 by the National Commission on Library and Information Sciences found that about 21 percent of public libraries were providing public access to the Internet.

Meanwhile, fewer than half of U.S. households own a computer and modem, the basic equipment for Internet access. And of those with access to a computer, according to a recent Gallup Poll, slightly more than 25 percent use online services.

The importance of online service is hard to underestimate. But in these times of tight government budgets, many local public libraries simply can't buy the equipment and online hookups.

Some seed money is coming to help libraries get started. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) awarded $24.4 million to 92 public-related organizations, including public libraries, for the current fiscal year. The purpose of the grants is to provide matching funds for purchasing equipment and training personnel.

"The purpose is to help groups take advantage of these technologies," said Laura Breeden, head of NTIA's Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program. "We believe libraries have a critical role in access to the Information Age for the have-nots."

But the grants just provide an initial investment for libraries to get equipment, online services and staff training. Some library systems may need to cut portions of already lean budgets to pay for online hookups, which require continuous funding.

"There is tension between the present and the future," said Mark Parker, systems manager for the Sacramento, Calif., Public Library. "If there is no more money, libraries may have to redirect money. And it may be painful."


In Maryland, a statewide system providing public library access is being funded mainly from refunds owed by a telephone company as a lawsuit settlement. Georgia is using lottery money to train librarians how to use the Internet. State and local governments are also becoming more involved in helping public libraries plug in.

Partnerships with private industry are another option. Sacramento has workstations connected to the World Wide Web, and equipment and three year's online time is being handled by Pacific Bell. While partnerships are valuable for getting started, such arrangements are limited, said Schuman, because of ongoing costs beyond acquiring hardware and wiring. "It will cost a fair amount to keep online services up," she said.

The ALA, which is spearheading a drive to convince Congress to put more money into libraries, hopes to increase federal funding from the current 57 cents per person to $1 per person for public libraries to purchase technology equipment and online access. The federal government funds less than half of the nation's public library budget, with state and local governments providing the rest. But "the government provides leadership, and it has to come from the federal level," said Schuman, who chairs the ALA campaign, called "Americans can't wait."


Rural libraries often don't have the resources to even begin plugging into the Internet. The irony of the situation is that rural residents stand to gain from Internet access because they would have access to the same information as the urban population.

Public funding in rural areas is generally scarce to begin with. Opportunities to partner are not as plentiful because there are fewer businesses in the countryside. And unlike their peers in the cities, rural librarians usually don't have technical departments to provide expertise on what it would take to fund Internet hookups.

Another issue with rural libraries is telecommunications costs. Most access providers are not in the immediate area, and rural libraries could have to pay extra toll charges to reach a far-away access provider.

"The solution is to move a major access point closer to them," said Chuck Wright, director of business services for the Southeastern Library Network, an Atlanta-based nonprofit organization working for public libraries in 10 Southeastern states.

Some states are creating a local access point for rural libraries with statewide networks, including Georgia and North Carolina. "Many states are involved in state networks," Wright said. "Most larger libraries are hooked together, and these networks are becoming state-based."

The issue of rural access to the Internet is also being solved as service providers spring up in rural areas. "There are rural areas with local providers, and there are others getting better service than urban areas," said Holly Hinman, project consultant with Internet For People, or InFoPeople, a nonprofit based in Pasadena, Calif., which distributes federal seed money to local libraries for online access.

Hinman said that the trend of more access providers and local telephone carriers being created should continue, especially once new telecommunications laws are passed by Congress. Some current local providers are giving rural libraries free access, which the companies hope will turn people who dabble on the Internet at the library into paying customers.

While libraries are being challenged to evolve with the Information Age, the smaller public libraries continue to grapple with regular services. Internet access is a relatively new issue for libraries, and the problems, including funding, are being sorted out.

"It is essential that we [provide access]," said Pat Ryckman, new technologies manager for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg County, N.C., Public Library, which runs Charlotte's Web, an Internet project. "I'm lucky I get supported in a mid-size city. I feel sorry for the small libraries unable to do traditional things."