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New survey finds libraries increasingly provide free access to online tech

Last month marked the release of an ambitious “national survey of public libraries that explored the digital inclusion roles of public libraries.”

Called The Digital Inclusion Survey, it was conducted largely by the Information Policy and Access Center (IPAC) at the University of Maryland, with additional funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), the American Library Association (ALA), and the International City/County Management Association (ICMA).

The need for this survey has become urgent. As the Benton Foundation noted in its look at The Digital Inclusion Survey, equal access and participation are now essential for participation in modern society. “And yet,” they wrote, “communities and individuals find themselves at differing levels of readiness in their ability to access and use the Internet, robust and scalable broadband, a range of digital technologies, and digital content.”

Into this breach has stepped our public library system. As the survey summary states, “Libraries are emerging as a key community platform for digital inclusion – one that is critical in surmounting the gap in digital equity and literacy while simultaneously moving communities forward in an increasingly digital social and economic context.”

The Digital Inclusion Survey has found that libraries have put increasing resources and expertise into bringing emerging technologies to library patrons. For instance, “One quarter of libraries provide patrons access to e-readers, and nearly 75 percent of libraries offer access to e-books platforms such as OverDrive for downloading and accessing e-books. One-third of libraries (33.2 percent) offer wireless printing capabilities, while 41.8 percent offer laptops for patron use.”

Moreover, in the past 24 months, said the survey:
• Overall, two-thirds of libraries have made upgrades;
• Nearly three-fourths (73.5 percent) of city libraries have made upgrades, contrasted with 61.2 percent of rural libraries. Suburban libraries lag slightly behind city libraries, with 70.3 percent reporting upgrades. Two thirds of town libraries have made upgrades;
• Overall, the most common upgrade was replacement of public access computers (76.8 percent);
• Roughly half of libraries have increased bandwidth or added public access computers.

And yet, despite dedicated progress, and our national reliance on public libraries, the survey found that libraries are not keeping up with the rate of change. As the survey concludes, “Libraries continue to face both budgetary and technical hurdles to providing high speed Internet access in their communities. Further, libraries are limited by the rapid pace of technological change and the accompanying shortage of expertise this can sometimes bring.”

It’s important that both the tech communities and the general public understand the essential role of libraries in making the tech revolution inclusive. It’s up to us to all support this effort.

2013 Digital Inclusion Survey: Survey Findings and Results Executive Summary (Information Policy and Access Center, July 21, 2014)

2013 Digital Inclusion Survey Reports Released (Benton Foundation, Aug. 8, 2014)

2013 Digital Inclusion Survey: Survey Findings and Results, full survey (Information Policy and Access Center, July 21, 2014)