U.S. Public Libraries Pressed By Public Demand For Internet Access

A survey finds the addition of new technology services is putting a strain on American libraries, whose budgets and staff sizes have generally not grown.
America's public libraries -- the sole source of public computer and Internet access in most communities -- are being overtaken by the public's demand for more high tech services, according to a nationwide survey by the American Library Association.

Released Wednesday, the "Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study" (PDF) found that nearly three-quarters of the nation's public libraries are the only source of free public access to the Web and of hands-on computer usage.

"Library infrastructure -- space, bandwidth and staffing -- is being pushed to capacity," the report stated. "An increased number of visitors to libraries coupled with increasingly complex technology products and services challenge libraries with facilities that were built before the advent of networked services." The ALA noted also that budgets and staff sizes have generally not grown with the addition of new technology services.

The report noted that public access to the Internet is critical for many Americans looking for employment: 70% of the top 100 retailers fill hourly positions through online applications and 16% fill other positions solely through online applications.

"Today, most businesses and organizations use the Internet as a primary method of finding and interacting with job applicants," said Alice Snell, vice president of HR research firm Taleo Research, in a statement. "But I frequently hear from retailers concerned that potential applicants may not be able to apply for jobs online because they lack Internet access."

The study, funded by the ALA and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, was based on surveys of more than 4,000 public libraries, more than 40 chief officers of state library agencies as well as focus groups and site visits in Delaware, Maryland, Nevada and Utah.

The ALA said thousands of public libraries are at or near their maximum space capacity as 76% of the reporting libraries said space limitations were the chief reason affecting their ability to add computers.