According to a new report from the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, public libraries have helped close the digital divide by providing free, public access to computers and the Internet. But despite widespread awareness of and support for library-based public access, libraries face significant challenges in sustaining and improving computing services.
The report, Toward Equality of Access: The Role of Public Libraries in Addressing the Digital Divide (36 pages, PDF), found that more than 95 percent of library buildings offer public-access computing, compared with only 28 percent in 1996, and that patrons use library computers to conduct research, write resumes, keep in touch with family and friends, and complete assignments for school or work. Moreover, this benefit has reached certain socioeconomic groups that are less likely to have access to computers at home or work, including African Americans and Hispanics and families making less than $15,000 a year.
In keeping pace with ever-evolving technology, however, libraries often lack sufficient resources and technical support to upgrade hardware, software, and Internet connections. Librarians and staff members also must seek continued technology training to assist patrons and troubleshoot equipment, while severe budget cuts nationwide have caused some libraries to cut operating hours, lay off staff, or close altogether.
"By offering free access to computing, and therefore information, libraries bring opportunity to all," said Carla Hayden, president of the American Library Association, which helped develop the report in partnership with AARP, the Beaumont Foundation of America, the Benton Foundation, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the National League of Cities, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "Libraries offer more than hardware — librarians are tech-savvy and help library users gain the skills needed to use technology effectively and find what they need online and in print."
To download a copy of the report, visit: http://www.gatesfoundation.org/nr/Downloads/libraries/