Public Libraries & the Internet

At a Glance
Project at a Glance: 
  • Status: Active
  • Launch: 1994
  • Partners: American Library Association, International City/County Management Association
  • Current Funding Agency: U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS)
  • Previous Funding Agency: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
  • Team: John Carlo Bertot, Paul T. Jaeger, Jean Lee, Kristofer Dubles, Brian Real, Abby McDermott
  • Mission: To support public libraries in their mission to provide Internet access and related content and services to people and their communities
  • Resources: www.gatesfoundation.org, www.ala.org
  • Related project: Public Access Benchmarking

U.S. public libraries were early adopters of the Internet beginning in the mid-1990s. Since then, John Carlo Bertot and his team have conducted thirteeen Public Libraries and the Internet national sample surveys on the use of and issues associated with public library Internet connectivity. Over the years, the study has been funded by the American Library Assocation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation,  the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science, and the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services. From 2006-2012, the Public Libraries and the Internet series of surveys became part of the larger Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study funded by the American Library Association and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In 2013, the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services funded two national surveys (2013 and 2014) with a focus on how public libraries build digitally inclusive communities through their public access technologies and Internet-enabled services and resources. The new Digital Inclusion Survey includes the American Library Association and the International City/County Management Association as partners. The Information Policy & Access Center manages the national survey of public libraries through this effort.

Core components of the national survey include the: 

  • Numbers of public access computers;
  • Availability and speed rates of broadband connectivity, including wireless access;
  • Development and building of digital literacy skills through instructional classes and other initiatives;
  • Promotion of innovation and STEM learning through technologies (e.g., Maker Labs);
  • Building of digitally inclusive communities through technology-endabled services and resources in such areas as health and wellness, community/civic engagement, employment/economic development, and services to unserved populations; and
  • Availability of online resources, including homework help, licensed databases and e-books.

The most recent survey cycle, 2011-2012, the survey achieved a 82.5% response rate, indicating the longevity and health of the survey. Key findings show that almost 100% of libraries in the U.S. are connected to the Internet and 85.7% provide wireless access. For a full report on findings, please visit our www.plinternetsurvey.org site where an overview, key findings, reports, issue briefs, and more are available for download.

Key findings from the 2011-2012 survey include:

  • Almost all public libraries (99.3%) offer some form of free public Internet access;
  • Public libraries report being the only provider of free public access to computers and the Internet in 62.1% of communities in the United States;
  • 90.5% of public libraries offer free wireless (Wi-Fi) access for users;
  • 99.1% of public libraries provide access to databases, and 81.9% provide access to homework resources;
  • 86.5% of public libraries report offering classes on general Internet use;
  • 87.0% of public libraries report offering classes in general computer skills;
  • 82.7% of public libraries report offering point-of-use technology training;
  • 44.3% of libraries offer formal technology training classes; and
  • 34.8% offer one-on-one training sessions by appointment.

Internet access is critical for communities and individuals to achieve success in the 21st century, and providing access to Internet-enabled services is a key role that public libraries play in building digitally inclusive communities.

Related Publications
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