November 22, 2017

ALA’s Public Library Technology Study Shows Increased Demand, Insufficient Support

By Norman Oder

As libraries face fiscal squeeze and delay computer improvements, online access to job search, e-government needed more

A new report released by the American Library Association (ALA), "Libraries Connect Communities 3: Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study 2008-2009,"shows that public libraries, even as they aim to increase access to computers and the Internet, are struggling to keep up with surging demand during the economic downturn.

Broadband funds from the recent stimulus package may provide a boost, but the authors of the report also encourage libraries to do a better job explaining to the public the services they offer.

“The public library community needs new models for deploying and managing public access technology—especially around broadband. Increasing broadband at the front door may not always provide significant increases at the workstation,” said Charles McClure, co-principal investigator for the study and director of Florida State University’s Information Institute. “Strategies may include expanding the role of consortia and increasing community and government partnerships to leverage economies of scale and meet community needs in concert.”

In addition to ALA, the study was conducted by the Center for Library & Information Innovation at the University of Maryland (UMCP) and the Information Institute at Florida State University (FSU). It was funded by the ALA and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Crucial role
With more than 71 percent of all libraries (and 79 percent of rural libraries) serving as the only source of free Internet access, libraries remain crucial to those seeking jobs and needing to connect to e-government—indeed, at least five states require that those filing for unemployment insurance must do so online.

The study says that 14.3 percent of public libraries decreased their operating budgets in FY2009. Only 38 percent of libraries report budget increases at or above the rate of inflation. More than half (53 percent) of the state library agencies that provide state funding to public libraries report declining state funding in FY2009, according to questionnaires to the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies (COSLA).

Capacity challenges
The report finds that more than 81 percent of libraries say they have insufficient availability of workstations some or all of the time. More than 94 percent of libraries have imposed time limits on their workstations.

Some 77.4 percent say that cost factors limits their capacity to add public access workstations/laptops, while 75.9 percent cite space limitations and 34 percent report the inadequacy of their building infrastructure.

Some 38.2 percent of public libraries don’t have a replacement or addition schedule for their public access computers.While 42.3 percent of libraries—and 72.2 percent of urban ones—support their IT with system-level IT staff, only 28.7 percent of rural libraries have access to such support.

Connection speed
Nearly 60 percent of libraries say Internet connection speeds are insufficient to meet needs at some point in the day—a slight increase from 57.5 percent in the previous survey, released last year.

Some 44.5 percent report Internet connection speeds greater than 1.5Mbps, a significant rise from 2007–2008 (25.7 percent), but the increasing amount of high-bandwidth applications continues to strain libraries. Moreover, about one-third of rural libraries have connection speeds less than 1.5 Mbps, compared with 7.1 percent of urban libraries, and 16 percent of suburban public libraries.

While 23 percent of libraries state cost kept them from improving bandwidth, even more (26 percent) say increased access simply isn’t available.

More than 76 percent now offer free Wi-Fi access, up from 66 percent last year.

Hardware questions
For the first time in the history of the multi-year survey, libraries said they had fewer new (less than one-year-old) public access computers, and 61 percent of libraries reported no plans to add computers in the coming year.

A decline in technology spending anticipated for FY2010 could mean that the decrease in computers in fall 2008 (when the survey was completed) may continue into next year, the report says.

Looking ahead
Data from the next study will be collected this fall, as the recession continues to limit budgets, and libraries likely get a piece of the $7.3 billion in broadband stimulus funds, notably the $200 million—at minimum—set aside for public access centers, including public libraries.

The authors suggest a number of actions to help improve the public library’s public access computing and information technology infrastructure. They advise libraries to:

  • Document the range and extent to which public access computing services, resources, and programs are used.
  • Increase local community awareness of the importance of the public library and Internet-based services.
  • Engage in a carefully developed assessment of broadband capacity needs and develop a plan to obtain and use additional capacity.
  • Establish a plan to document the impacts and outcomes from [stimulus-funded] broadband capacity increases.
  • Rethink delivery and organization of public access computing services, resources and programs.

“This rethinking process includes expanding the role of consortia and increasing collaborations and partnerships that can better leverage economies of scale, while maintaining or increasing the quality of network-based services,” the report states. “Examples include cooperative broadband purchasing or a statewide e-government Web portal of resources, services, training and related programs. Such a Web portal could be jointly developed among public libraries, state and local government that would be available to all public libraries in the state, rather than developed piecemeal by individual libraries."

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