Gates Foundation comes to libraries' aid

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced $3.4 million in grants to improve Internet connections of public libraries in five states.

Through the Opportunity Online program, the Foundation will partner with fourteen additional states to help libraries compete for broadband stimulus funds.

"Federal, state, and local government investments in connecting libraries to broadband are important steps toward realizing the vision of universal broadband access," said Jill Nishi, deputy director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's U.S. Libraries program. "When libraries have access to broadband, they can effectively deliver critical educational, employment, and government services for residents that lack Internet access elsewhere. As community anchor institutions, libraries can also help drive local broadband adoption."

In 70 percent of communities, the public library is the only source of free Internet access, and nearly 40 percent of Americans don't have an Internet connection at home. Public libraries have experienced a sharp uptick in patronage in the recent economic downturn, as the Internet is becoming increasingly necessary for job searches, applications, and other once-analog activities.

The Foundation selected Kansas, Arkansas, New York, Virginia, and Massachusetts for grants because of the high number of libraries lacking sufficient (or any) Internet access in those states.

Libraries in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, Idaho, Kentucky, Montana, North Carolina, Nebraska, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Utah, Vermont, and Washington will receive technical and consulting assistance to develop funding proposals for the NTIA's Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP), which will begin to award grants in early 2010.

It's a welcome relief for librarians. "Libraries have never faced so much demand for high-quality Internet access," said Susan McVey, director of the Oklahoma Department of Libraries, "It's critical that current efforts to expand broadband access in America include strong support for public libraries so they can continue to serve as thriving, vital community technology hubs."

Foundation Announces New Support for Public Libraries to Help Provide Broadband Access for More Americans (Gates Foundation)

Opportunity Online Grants Help Public Libraries Improve Quality of Free Computer Access Used by Millions of Americans (Gates Foundation)

Budget cuts and job seekers strain public library resources (Speed Matters)