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Libraries Play Vital Role in Community Technology Access, Survey Finds

By guest blogger Sam Atkeson

The American Library Association today released a study highlighting libraries' role in equipping U.S. communities with the resources and skills needed for participation in the 21st century global marketplace.

The Digital Inclusion Survey collected data from over 3,000 public libraries across the nation to find widespread technology improvements, including "nearly ubiquitious public Wi-Fi, growing mobile resources and a leap in e-book access." Additionally, the study finds that nearly 100 percent of America's public libraries offer workforce development training programs, online job resources, and technology skills training. 

The survey is the first national study to show "in such detail the extent to which libraries complete education, jumpstart employment and entrepreneurship, and foster individual empowerment and engagement," said ALA President Courtney Young in a statement with the survey's release.

Among the study's key findings about libraries:

  • 98 percent have free public access to Wi-Fi, up from 89 percent in 2012;
  • 98 percent provide technology training in areas including Internet safety and privacy, coding and social media;
  • 97 percent provide online homework help;
  • 95 percent offer workforce development training programs;
  • 90 percent offer e-books, up from 76 percent in 2012.

Despite overall improvements, the study did indicate uneven digital advances between urban and rural libraries. 

Less than half of rural libraries showed increases in bandwidth speeds in the last 24 months, compared with 64 percent of urban libraries and 56 percent of suburban libraries. Additionally, fewer than two-thirds of rural libraries have access to information technology staff—a figure far behind that of their urban counterparts. 

A majority of libraries surveyed expressed a desire to increase their bandwidth capacity, and indicated cost as the leading barier to doing so. 

The E-rate modernization plan, which was approved by the FCC this month, has pledged $2 billion in funding over the next two years to help with those costs.

"This order represents a solid first step toward increasing library participation in the E-rate program and moving our communities toward the gigabit speeds increasingly needed to support Wi-Fi, digital learning and multimedia collections," said Young in a statement following the FCC's 3-2 vote along partisan lines to approve the plan.

However, some rural education organizations have expressed concern that the order doesn't do enough to address the urban/rural digital divide. 

The study also gives an important first look at the kinds of emerging technologies and programs that are becoming increasingly present in libraries across the nation—including STEM maker spaces, 3D printing, and coding/application development events such as "hackathons."

"Libraries continue to establish themselves as digital leaders in communities," Young concluded in her statement. "This study demonstrates how technology investments benefit our libraries and our patrons, and keep our communities thriving."

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