Ninety-eight percent of libraries now provide free public access to Wi-Fi, up from 89 percent in 2012. But digital differences among states still exists -- as does an urban/rural divide, according to the new 2014 Digital Inclusion Survey released by the American Library Association (ALA).

The study, conducted in conjunction with the Information Policy and Access Center at the University of Maryland and the International City/County Management Association and funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, found that cities still fair far better when it comes to broadband -- they report an average subscribed download speed of more than 100Mbps, compared to an average subscribed download speed of just over 21Mbps for rural public libraries.

“Fully 10 percent of libraries still have broadband speeds of 1.5Mbps or slower, but for rural libraries that number is closer to 1-in-5,” said Larra Clark, director of the ALA’s program on America’s Libraries for the 21st Century. “That is completely inadequate to support multiple public computers, public Wi-Fi, and downloadable digital content.”

While most libraries reported marked progress from the last national library technology study in 2012, advances are uneven, according to the report. Less than half of rural libraries reported they increased bandwidth speeds in the last 24 months, compared with 64 percent of urban libraries and 56 percent of suburban libraries.

“Equitable access to and participation in the online environment is essential for success in education, employment, finance, health and wellness, civic engagement, and a democratic society,” according to the report. “And yet, communities and individuals find themselves at differing levels of readiness in their ability to access and use the Internet, robust and scalable broadband, a range of digital technologies, and digital content.”

The study also found that less than two-thirds of rural libraries report having access to information technology staff, far behind their counterparts. A majority of all libraries (66 percent) agree they would like to increase their broadband capacity, and that the leading barrier in doing so is cost.

“It is increasingly understood that access to broadband is the critical success factor across our society, and we must do more to connect all of our communities,” said ICMA Executive Director Robert J. O'Neill, Jr. in an ALA press release. “Libraries play an essential role in helping local governments meet their greatest challenges by connecting their services to critical community priorities.”

Some states and localities have made progress through the use of federal funds earmarked to help bring broadband access to libraries.

In 2010, Delaware libraries received $1.9 million to expand broadband access through the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) administered by the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration. BTOP provides grants to support the deployment of broadband infrastructure, enhance and expand public computer centers, and encourage sustainable adoption of broadband services. The funds provided the Delaware Division of Libraries with broadband education, access, equipment, and support. That organization then partnered with government agencies, educational institutions, and local businesses to expand service throughout the state.

“Delaware is a great example of the kind of change possible through a dramatic intervention, such as we saw through the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program,” said Clark. “The state’s libraries had different levels of broadband speed and several had very low levels. Through a statewide effort, every library now has subscribed speeds of 100Mbps, and they are already beginning to think about raising that to 500Mbps. Those kinds of interventions can really be a game changer for an entire state.”

Clark said enabling that type of change starts with state and local governments seeing libraries as partners in achieving community-level goals.

“The library needs to be part of the conversation as governments are thinking about how to increase the technology engagement and broadband infrastructure in their communities. Having them at the table is invaluable,” Clark said. “Libraries have a different story to tell than a city or county does in terms of figuring out how to offer technology to people for a variety of reasons.”

Clark said having broadband access in libraries is now more critical for education too, as Common Core standards are more technology-based than previous educational standards.

“As kids leave schools where many now have broadband access and head to the library to do homework, they need to have high-speed infrastructure to enable that. It’s a holistic approach,” she said. “Libraries are no longer places just for books. We need to see them as technology and learning places and we need to understand what that means for the technology infrastructure.”

The Digital Inclusion Survey collected data from a nationally representative sample of public libraries between September 3, 2013 and November 30, 2013. The survey received 3,392 responses.

Among the survey’s other findings:

  • 98 percent of libraries provide technology training, ranging from Internet safety and privacy to coding to using social media;
  • 98 percent provide assistance completing online government forms;
  • 97 percent provide online homework help;
  • 95 percent offer workforce development training programs;
  • 90 percent offer e-books, up from 76% in 2012;
  • 56 percent offer health and wellness programs regarding developing healthy lifestyles;
  • 50 percent offer entrepreneurship and small business development programs;
  • The average number of computers provided by libraries is now 20, up from 16 in 2012
Justine Brown  |  Contributing Writer