E-Books and Wi-Fi Up, Open Hours Down at Public Libraries

Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, annual survey of the technology landscape in U.S. public libraries shows more demand for technology resources amid budget cuts and reduced operating hours.

by / June 21, 2011
Photo by Craig Learoyd

Public libraries in the U.S. are facing more demand for e-books and Wi-Fi just as many municipalities are cutting budget and reducing hours of operation, according to an annual study released Tuesday, June 21.

Findings in the 2011 Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study continue to reflect how libraries have become community hubs for publicly available computers and Internet connectivity. More Americans are relying on technology in libraries to hunt for jobs, to fill out government forms, and to simply browse the Web. In fact, 64 percent of library locations said they are the only provider of free public computer and Internet access in their communities.

Technology is becoming integral to the American public library. Compared to last year’s survey:

• Almost 70 percent of libraries reported an increased use of public access workstations.
• Seventy-five percent reported an increased use of Wi-Fi.
• Almost half reported an increased use of electronic resources.

Many libraries are dealing with budget reductions as economic woes continue to batter municipal governments. Yet libraries are still providing newer technology. For example, 67 percent of U.S. libraries surveyed now offer e-books to their patrons — a 30 percent increase since 2007. Almost 86 percent of public library outlets now offer wireless Internet access, up from 82 percent last year.

Some U.S. public libraries are facing significant budget cuts. Fifty-five percent of urban libraries reported decreases this year to their operating budgets, followed by suburban (36 percent) and rural (26 percent) libraries. At the same time, 16 percent of libraries said they had decreased operating hours.

“Since the recession began, libraries have grappled with budget cuts and decreased hours, while users wait in lines before doors open, eager to use library computers or access Wi-Fi, get expert assistance for job search, and learn how to download e-books,” said American Library Association President Roberta Stevens. She urged policymakers to continue funding libraries in order to meet the needs of citizens.

Funding appears to have a direct impact on the quality of technology available. Some libraries said they couldn’t afford upgrades to broadband, while others said they didn’t have the funds to adhere to a planned refresh of computer workstations. Seventy-six percent of libraries said they didn’t have enough workstations to meet users’ needs.

“Although libraries clearly continue to enhance their capacity to provide support through more public access computers, increased broadband, and Wi-Fi, increased usage was reported across key areas, suggesting that growing demand is outpacing any additional library capacity,” the study said.

The study, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the American Library Association, is downloadable at www.ala.org/plinternetfunding.

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