Association Study: Libraries Help Close the Digital Gap

Reporting on its first Digital Inclusion Survey, the American Library Association highlights how libraries are remaining relevant in the digital age—and how hard it is for them to keep up with technology's quickening pace.

If your local library doesn’t have working WiFi, it’s probably because the power’s out.

Free wireless internet access is so common at libraries these days that just 2.5 percent of those that took part in a recent survey said they don’t offer it.

Libraries continue to face both budgetary and technical hurdles to providing high-speed internet access in their communities.

The just-released Digital Inclusion Survey report, based on the results of the survey initiated last year by the American Library Association, found that nearly all of the 3,392 respondents also offer technology training (98 percent), assistance with online government forms (97.5 percent), and homework help for students (96.5 percent).

Libraries also generally offer access to electronic books (89.5 percent). Less common are those that offer access to health and wellness programs (57.9 percent) and that offer small-business development programs (slightly under 50 percent).

But while libraries are playing a growing role as a digital hub for communities across the country, they’re often working within tight parameters to remain as relevant as they were when visitors were only looking for books and reference materials on the shelves.

“Libraries continue to face both budgetary and technical hurdles to providing high-speed internet access in their communities,” the study states [PDF]. “Further, libraries are limited by the rapid pace of technological change and the accompanying shortage of expertise this can sometimes bring. This challenge, however, is an opportunity for libraries to develop partnerships and strong volunteer programs—evidence of which the survey shows.”

ALA President Courtney Young noted that the study took an unprecedented look at a number of emerging connectivity and educational trends affecting the library space—such as 3-D printing, hackathons, and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) research.

“Until the Digital Inclusion Survey, no national study has shown in such detail the extent to which libraries complete education, jump-start employment and entrepreneurship, and foster individual empowerment and engagement, or the E’s of libraries,” Young said in a statement.

The study, paid for by a National Leadership Grant from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services, was conducted by the ALA Office for Research and Statistics, the University of Maryland’s Information Policy and Access Center, and the International City/County Management Association.

Full results are available on the Digital Inclusion Survey website, which includes infographics and an interactive map highlighting each of the libraries that took part.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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