The economic downturn has led to dramatic increases in library visitation across the nation, including unprecedented demand for free computer and internet access. Over the last year, Americans have flocked to libraries to get online and find help from trained staff to conduct job searches, complete online coursework, apply for government services, and learn new workforce skills.
Ironically, even as demand for services grows, library budgets are shrinking. According to a recent ALA survey, 24 out of 45 reporting states experienced decreased library funding over the past year. And although almost all libraries offer free technology access, many continue to struggle to replace aging computer workstations and increase the speed of their internet connections. Up to a third of all libraries say they lack even minimally adequate broadband for their patrons.
Despite these challenges, I am optimistic about the future of libraries. They have never been more relevant and more important to our communities. Groundbreaking new research proves the broad use and value of internet access in public libraries. “Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries” reaffirms what many of us already thought to be true—that library technology services have created opportunity for millions of Americans.
This research, authored by the University of Washington and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, found that nearly one in three Americans age 14 or older—roughly 77 million people—used a public library computer or wireless network to access the internet in the last year. Major uses of online access at libraries include employment and career support (40% of users); education and training such as applying for college, doing homework, or taking an online course (42%); and researching health and wellness issues (37%).
This important study highlights what is at risk, particularly for low-income individuals who rely heavily on the public library for their technology, if future public and private investment in public libraries doesn’t keep pace with demand.
At the federal level, we’ve recently seen the potential for unprecedented commitment from the federal government to help public libraries secure the high-quality broadband access they need to ensure libraries remain vital technology hubs for our communities. Libraries and other community institutions have been given priority in the disbursement of federal stimulus broadband grants, and the National Broadband Plan recently announced by the Federal Communications Commission recognizes libraries as critical access points to ensure digital inclusion of all communities. By digital inclusion, I mean that people have both quality access to technology and the ability to use technology to improve their lives.
The Gates Foundation began its partnership with public libraries over a dozen years ago to help transform the way patrons access information at the library. We believe that every life has equal value and that everyone deserves the chance to live a healthy, productive life. In the United States, there is no better way for us to continue working toward that vision than by partnering with libraries.
With our investments in computer hardware now completed, we look forward to our role as a champion of technology in public libraries and helping to amplify the value of libraries to the public and decision makers. Over the next several years, the foundation will make investments designed to help library leaders plan for, manage, and advocate for technology, and to help community leaders understand the value of public access technology in libraries.
As I look to the work and challenges that lie ahead, I am more confident than ever that libraries will continue to provide Americans with the opportunity, learning, and hope that shapes our country. I am proud to partner with the thousands of library leaders, staff, and community supporters that will carry this important work forward.
Jill Nishi is deputy director of the U. S. Libraries Initiative for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle.