Libraries strained by Internet use

Demand outstrips IT services budgets as people queue up to get online access

The crowds waiting to use computers at public libraries are growing larger, but library budgets aren't.

That's one message from a study conducted by the American Library Association and Florida State University's Information Use Management and Policy Institute. Released earlier this month, the study, 'Libraries Connect Communities: Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study 2006-2007' (GCN.com/845), reported on a survey of thousands of public library branches and library focus groups held in Delaware, Maryland, Nevada and Utah.

Funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and ALA, the study found that more than 73 percent of libraries say they are the only source of free public access to computers and the Internet in their communities.

According to the study, about one-third of Americans do not own desktop computers or have Internet access at home. Not surprisingly, visits to public libraries, which often function as a hub of Internet access, are way up ' 1.3 billion in 2004, compared with 821.6 million a decade earlier, an annual growth rate of more than 4.6 percent.

The queues at library computers are growing for three primary reasons, the survey said: Students seeking educational Web resources (67.7 percent); job seekers sending r'sum's and applications online (44 percent); and people trying to learn computer and Internet skills (29.8 percent).

Job seekers, in particular, are lining up for libraries' Internet services because more employers are using the Internet as a primary means of finding applicants. Seventy percent of the top 100 U.S. retailers accept online applications for hourly positions, compared with 41 percent three years ago. Sixteen percent accept only online applications, according to a study by human resources analysis firm Taleo Research.

Almost all public libraries (99.1 percent) offer free Internet access. Yet despite the demand for free access, more than 58 percent of libraries say they have no plans to add computers in the year ahead. Forty-six percent plan to replace computers.

Many libraries were built years before the advent of the Internet and are not equipped to handle more than a few PCs. Seventy-six percent of surveyed libraries reported that a lack of space limited their ability to add computers to their facilities.

Funding is also a constraint, the study said. Budgets have remained flat while the cost of providing library services has increased.

As a case in point, the Central Arkansas Library System, with its main offices in Little Rock, has seen a massive increase in patrons using the library's free Internet.

In 2002, 174,166 people signed up for free Internet access in the library system, which has 12 locations, including one in a rural area, said Jennifer Chilcoat, associate director for institutional services at the library. Last year, however, 274,001 people signed up for Internet access at the library.

The problem with the increase in Internet usage hasn't been so much about the cost of the computers, Chilcoat said. 'It's all those incidental costs ' providing space, furniture and staff time.'

The library focus groups were unanimous in wanting more dedicated information technology staff. Even larger libraries sometimes only have one IT employee. 'We have well over 100 computers and just the one guy,' a library director in Maryland said.

The Arkansas system's libraries have long wait times to get on a computer, especially in the late afternoon and early evening when students come to the library to do homework, Chilcoat said. 'That really drives up those [Internet] numbers in the afternoon.'

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.

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