Public libraries and the Internet 2008-2009: Issues, implications, and challenges
First Monday

Public libraries and the Internet 2008-2009: Issues, implications, and challenges

This paper presents an overview of methods, findings, issues, and implications from the 2008 Public Libraries and the Internet national survey, including comparisons to data from previous studies. Since 1994, these surveys have chronicled the expansion of the Internet as a primary library service. The 2008 survey includes key data about the many facets of public libraries as community Internet access, training, and service centers, from the number of workstations and connection speeds available to the most common Internet services and training. The findings from the 2008 survey reveal impacts of the global recession on public libraries and their ability to meet the needs and expectations of patrons, communities, and all levels of government.


The Internet in public libraries
Survey methodology
Data analysis
Issues and implications
Future challenges and research




Since 1994, the Public Libraries and the Internet study series has documented the ascension of the Internet as a core aspect of public library services through a national survey of U.S. public libraries. This study is now conducted as part of the larger annual Public Library Funding and Technology Access Study coordinated by the American Library Association (ALA) and funded by ALA and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that includes additional data collection efforts and findings, including financial technology and operating data, site visit data, and survey findings of the Chief Officers of State Librarians.

The Public Libraries and the Internet survey is the only source of longitudinal data regarding the change in public access infrastructure (e.g., the number of workstations per library, bandwidth, and wireless access) as well as the types and number of services and resources (e.g., databases, e–books, digital reference, and computer and Internet training) that public libraries provide the communities they serve. This article presents and examines key findings from the 2008 survey, as well as the implications of these findings for public libraries and for research about public libraries.

Since their inception in 1994, the Public Libraries and the Internet surveys have documented the implementation, uses, and development of Internet access, training, and services in public libraries, detailing the rise of public Internet access in public libraries in the United States. Conducted to provide national data regarding public library Internet access, these surveys explore issues such as the extent to which public libraries:

  • Provide and sustain public access Internet services and resources that meet patron, community, and government access needs and expectations;
  • Serve as key technology and Internet–based resource/service training centers in their communities; and,
  • Install, maintain, and upgrade the technology infrastructure required to provide public access Internet services and resources.

The findings from the 2008 survey demonstrate that public libraries continue to expand the public access computing and Internet services and training available to patrons. As has been the case for several years, virtually all public libraries are connected to and offer public access to the Internet, with an increasing number offering wireless access as well. The vast majority also offer a range of services and training related to the Internet. While patron and community demand for Internet access, training, and services is so routinely extensive that most libraries cannot meet these needs during normal times, the unprecedented economic downturn has further stressed library resources through reduced operating hours and more demand for library services and resources — particularly Internet–based services (CNN, 2009). In addition, libraries continue to struggle with issues of infrastructure as the types of Internet–related services become more complex and bandwidth–intensive, require a range of building technology upgrades, and continual staff skills development.

The 2008 study data built upon key themes from the earlier surveys, with a particular focus on developing issues areas of library technology budgets, new technologies, e–government roles of public libraries, and issues associated with maintaining, upgrading, and replacing public access technologies. The data collected by this survey offer insights and understanding of the issues and needs of public libraries associated with providing Internet–based services and resources. Equally important, the data also assist public librarians to better plan for and deliver Internet–based services and resources to their users. Further, by comparing these findings with data from recent previous studies, these data help to reveal the emerging issues related to the Internet in public libraries. Unless otherwise noted, the data in this article are from the 2007 survey (Bertot, et al., 2007) or the 2008 survey (Bertot, et al., 2009).



The Internet in public libraries

Since libraries began to adopt Internet access in the mid–1990s, public library Internet connectivity jumped from 20.9 percent in 1994 to 99.1 percent in 2008 (Bertot, et al., 2009). As the Internet swiftly gained social prominence and significance in the late twentieth and early twenty–first century, public libraries began to add Internet access and a range of new services via numerous media through which patrons could gain access to a wide expanse of information and ideas. Now, public library commitment to providing access to the Internet is total, making significant contributions to the information, education, recreation, culture, and economic resources in their communities. As a result, Internet access, training, and services are now an essential part of what public libraries provide to their patrons and their communities.

The Internet access, training, and services provided by public libraries present multi–dimensional issues of practice and research, comprising concerns of equity in access, education, user impact, information use, information behavior, policy, and management, planning, and evaluation (Bertot, et al., 2008a). The Internet–related elements of public libraries have become so important that the lack of access or of adequate access for socio–economic, racial, or geographic populations fuels a widening of an information or digital divide affecting education, governance, and economic opportunities, among others (Bertot, 2003; Hall, 2007; Jaeger, et al., 2007a; Jaeger and Yan, 2009).

Perhaps not surprisingly, given the array of impacts of the traditional concept of public libraries, some have suggested that Internet access, training, and services run contrary to the missions of public libraries. Critics — both in the popular media and in library research — have attacked libraries’ perceived confusion of purpose and rush toward the Internet, which is seen as entertainment, and away from books, which is viewed as a more pure service to communities (Baker, 1996, 2001; Brown and Duguid, 2002; Buschman, 2003; Tisdale, 1997). However, as the data collected over the past decade and a half by the Public Libraries and the Internet surveys have demonstrated, patrons and communities have embraced the Internet–related aspects of library services as essential contributions of the library.

Public library Internet access is expected to play major roles in everything from supporting citizen access to government information and services (Jaeger and Bertot, 2009) to preparation for and recovery from disasters (Bertot, et al., 2006a, 2006b; Jaeger, et al., 2007b). In the recent economic downturn, many libraries are seeing record use of their computers as people search for employment and social services (Carlton, 2009; Van Sant, 2009). As such, most patrons, communities, and governments find Internet access, training, and services as central to the public library as any other contribution made by libraries.



Survey methodology

The 2008 Public Library Funding and Technology Access Study employed a Web–based survey approach to gather data, with a mailed packet to library directors in the sample that included a survey participation–invitation letter from the American Library Association and a print version of the survey. The letter introduced the study, provided information regarding the study sponsors and the research team, explained the study purpose and goals, provided instructions on how to access and complete the electronic survey, and provided contact information to answer any questions that participants might have. The print version of the survey was included to serve primarily as a worksheet for librarians and to show them the survey questions, though some libraries completed and mailed the print survey back to the study team. These were entered into the Web–based survey form upon receipt.

The study team developed the questions on the survey through an iterative and collaborative effort involving the researchers, representatives of the funding agencies, and members of the Study Advisory Committee. The study team pre–tested the initial surveys with the Project’s advisory committee, public librarians, and the state data coordinators of the state library agencies and revised the survey based on their comments and suggestions. The study team developed and tested the survey Web site using a range of usability, functionality, and accessibility tools.

The study obtained data that enabled analysis by the following categories: Metropolitan status (e.g., urban, suburban, and rural), which was determined using the official designations employed by the Census Bureau, the Office of Management and Budget, State Library agencies, and public libraries; Poverty (less than 20 percent [low], 20–40 percent [medium], and greater than 40 percent [high]); State (the 50 states plus the District of Columbia); and National. Given the quality of the data, findings could be generalized to each of these four categories. The survey received adequate and representative responses from 45 states plus the District of Columbia. Finally, the survey explored topics that pertained to both public library system and outlet (branch) level data. As analysis was required at both the state and national level, the survey team drew a stratified, proportionate sample to ensure the data could be generalized within the states analyzed, nationally, and across and within the metropolitan status and poverty strata.

The study team used the 2005 public library dataset available from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) as a sample frame, which was the most recent file at the time the geocoding process began. The study team employed the services of the GeoLib database ( to geocode the NCES public library universe file in order to calculate the poverty rates for public library outlets. Poverty was calculated by combining census data and library building location. A 10–mile radius was drawn around rural libraries, three–mile radius around suburban libraries, and one–mile radius around urban libraries. A formula that incorporated the poverty levels across and within the Census tracks in those radii was used to determine the overall poverty of the community that the library served. Given the time frame of the study, GeoLib was able to geocode 16,620 library outlets and calculate their poverty rates.

From these totals, the researchers used SPSS Complex Samples software to draw the sample for the study. The sample needed to provide the study team with the ability to analyze survey data at the state and national levels along the poverty and metropolitan status strata discussed above. The study team drew a sample with replacement of 5,907 outlets with a 95 percent confidence interval for data analysis purposes.

A complicating factor in generating a valid and representative sample — and ultimately adequate and representative response rate — was that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (Foundation) required completion of the survey for libraries that received a certain type of funding from the Foundation. In all, there were 1,906 libraries in 21 states that fell into this grouping, and they posed a selection bias (largely rural and higher poverty libraries, though there were a number or urban and higher poverty libraries as well). The sample of 5,907 outlets drawn required a selection strategy that looked across the states, metropolitan status, poverty, and Foundation grant participation variables in order to create both a balanced and representative national and state level sample. The drawn sample was treated separately from that of the Foundation’s libraries, as the recipients of Foundation funding were required to participate.

The survey asked respondents to answer questions about specific library branches (also referred to as outlets) and about the library system (administrative entities) to which each respondent branch belonged [1]. Respondents answered the survey between September and November 2008. After a number of follow–up reminders and other strategies the survey received a total of 4,303 responses (out of the 5,907 included in the sample) for a response rate of 72.8 percent. Another 1,808 Foundation–funded library responses were added for a total of 6,111 responses for analysis purposes. Data quality checks verified the representativeness of the responses across the metropolitan status and poverty strata nationally, and within 45 states and the District of Columbia. The data analysis employed separate weighted analysis techniques to provide national and state level estimates.



Data analysis

Results from the 2008 survey demonstrate that public libraries continue to serve as a guarantor of Internet access, services, and training, filling a range of important social roles. For several years, virtually all public libraries have been connected to and provided public access to the Internet, with these numbers staying around 99 percent for several iterations of the survey. However, as demand and usage of this access continues to increase and a greater variety of services are used through the access, the Internet–related services and training evolve to meet the needs of the library’s service community.

Over the past several years, libraries have increasingly reported that they are connected to the Internet and providing public access; however, that percentage has hit a saturation point (Bertot, et al., 2008a). At present, 98.7 percent of public libraries provide public access to the Internet. Not only is the overall percentage high, but it remains so in each subcategory (i.e., metropolitan status and poverty level). Rural libraries in high poverty communities have typically had the lowest public access rates (Bertot, et al., 2008; Bertot, et al., 2009; Bertot, et al., 2005). The 2008 survey revealed that urban libraries in high level poverty communities reported the lowest public access rate (95.1 percent). Several subcategories (i.e., suburban–medium, suburban–high, and rural–high) have 100 percent of libraries that report providing public access to the Internet.

a. Community access center


Table 1: Public library outlets as the only provider of free public Internet and free public computer access by metropolitan status and poverty.
Note: Weighted missing values, n=448.
 Metropolitan statusPoverty level 
Free public accessUrbanSuburbanRuralLowMediumHighOverall
Do not know10.6%


Public libraries continue to stand as virtually the only social institution that ensures that free public Internet access, as Table 1 shows. Approximately three–fourths (71.4 percent) of public libraries report that they are the only provider of free public Internet and free public computer access in their communities or service areas, which virtually identical to the 72.5 percent of outlets reporting this in 2007 (Bertot, et al., 2008). These free services are a particularly critical function within rural and low poverty communities, as 78.6 percent and 72.5 percent of these outlets respectively reported that they provide the only free Internet access within their communities.

Urban (28.1 percent) and high poverty (28.3 percent) areas were the areas where other locations for free public Internet access were most likely available. As these areas are often the most densely populated, it is perhaps not surprising that these are the areas in which other free access points are available. However, given that three–quarters of communities in the United States rely exclusively on public libraries for free public Internet access, public libraries truly are community access centers for free Internet access, services, and training.


Table 2: Average number of hours open weekly per outlet by metropolitan status and poverty.
 Poverty level 
Metropolitan statusLowMediumHighOverall


Directly impacting the amount of Internet access, services, and training that public libraries can provide to their communities is the number of hours that the libraries are open. As shown in Table 2, results from the 2008 survey shows a one hour decrease in the average number of hours open over last year, 44 hours versus 45 reported in 2007. Although urban outlets have been and continue to be open the most hours, there was a sharp decrease in the average hours urban high poverty outlets are open, dropping from 59.1 in 2007 to 51.1 this year. A similar drop was seen in rural high poverty outlets, going from an average of 34.1 hours open last year to 28.5 this year. Also, although the average suburban outlet is open 49.4 hours, suburban high poverty outlets are open significantly less, on average only 32 hours.


Table 3: Public library outlets change in hours open by metropolitan status and poverty.
 Metropolitan statusPoverty level 
Hours openUrbanSuburbanRuralLowMediumHighOverall
Average number of hours increased5.1%
Average number of hours decreased7.2%


Table 3 illustrates the changes outlets are reporting in average hours they are open for libraries that had either an increase or decrease in the number of hours open. Of those libraries reporting an increase, high poverty outlets saw the largest number of hours increased over last year (6.3) whereas urban outlets saw their average hours open decrease by 7.2 hours for those reporting a decrease. These drops in hours are likely related directly to downturn in the economy, negatively affecting many libraries where the services they provide would be most desperately needed. In the current economic downturn, demand for and use of the public library for job seeking activities, social services, e–mail access, entertainment, and other purposes has skyrocketed (Carlton, 2009; Van Sant, 2009).

b. Sufficiency and quality of access


Table 4: Average number of public access Internet workstations by metropolitan status and poverty.
 Poverty level 
Metropolitan statusLowMediumHighOverall


A number of factors shape the quality and sufficiency of access that libraries can provide to their communities. One are in which libraries are working to increase capacity is in the number of workstations. The average number of workstations per library is 11 (Table 4), which marks a small increase from the prior years. In the previous survey, the average was 10.7. In fact, this number has consistently risen over the past several surveys. Similar to the results from the 2007 survey, urban communities with high poverty levels had the highest averages of workstations; whereas, high poverty, suburban communities had the least amount of workstations on average. When considering just metropolitan status, urban library outlets have the highest average of workstations — 2.5 times that of rural libraries and .87 times that of suburban libraries.


Table 5: Sufficiency of public access Internet workstations by metropolitan status and poverty.
 Metropolitan statusPoverty level 
Sufficiency of public access workstationsUrbanSuburbanRuralLowMediumHighOverall
There are consistently fewer public Internet workstations than patrons who wish to use them throughout a typical day.37.7%
There are fewer public Internet workstations than patrons who wish to use them at different times throughout a typical day.54.6%
There are always sufficient public Internet workstations available for patrons who wish to use them during a typical day.7.6%


Despite efforts to increase the number of workstations, the vast majority of library outlets continue to report an overall insufficiency of the number of workstations that provide public Internet access. As Table 5 shows, only 18.9 percent of outlets reported that there are always a sufficient number of workstations. In contrast, 62.4 percent of outlets reported that are fewer workstations available than patrons who wish to use them at different times during the day. Having too few workstations at all times was reported by only 18.8 percent of outlets, although there was a steep increase in high poverty outlets reporting the same as compared to 2007 (36.8 percent versus 18.2 percent last year). Rural (23.2 percent) and low poverty (19.9 percent) outlets are the most likely to have a sufficient number of workstations at all times, while suburban (66.2 percent) and low poverty (62.9 percent) outlets are the most likely to report having difficulties providing adequate access during different times of the day. A continuing problem reported in the previous survey, the lack of a sufficient number of workstations at all times for the vast majority of public libraries is troubling as libraries — despite their best efforts to meet demand — clearly lack the support and capacity to meet patron and community Internet access needs.


Table 6: Adequacy of public library outlets public access Internet connection by metropolitan status and poverty.
Note: Weighted missing values, n=316.
 Metropolitan statusPoverty level 
Adequacy of public access Internet connectionUrbanSuburbanRuralLowMediumHighOverall
The connection speed is insufficient to meet patron needs.26.3%
The connection speed is sufficient to meet patron needs at some times.44.7%
The connection speed is sufficient to meet patron needs at all times.28.6%


While the sufficiency of access is more positive than the adequacy of access, the sufficiency of access is still an enormous challenge for libraries. As Table 6 shows, fewer than half of all outlets have a connection speed that is sufficient to meet patron needs at all times (39.9 percent), with rural (42.9 percent) and low poverty (41.1 percent) outlets reporting the largest percentages of sufficiency. Conversely, the largest percentage of outlets reporting either complete insufficiency in connection speeds or insufficiency at least some times are urban and high poverty outlets. A total of 71 percent of urban outlets and 74.7 percent of high poverty outlets lack a sufficient connection speed capable of addressing their patron needs. Factors that affect a sufficient connection speed include the increasing bandwidth requirement for Internet services libraries provide such as Web 2.0 technology, various reference and database services, and the like (Bertot and McClure, 2007). Additionally, any increase in the number of workstations at each outlet will reduce the available bandwidth at each individual workstation, making connection speeds at individual workstations less sufficient.


Table 7: Public access wireless Internet connectivity by metropolitan status and poverty.
Note: Weighted missing values, n=371.
 Metropolitan statusPoverty level 
Availability of public access wireless Internet servicesUrbanSuburbanRuralLowMediumHighOverall
Currently available for public use83.0%
Not currently available, but there are plans to make it available within the next year8.1%
Not currently available and no plans to make it available within the next year8.9%


In addition to trying to increase the number of workstations, libraries have also embraced wireless (Wi–Fi) Internet access as a way to provide access to a greater number of patrons. A growing number of libraries also provide wireless access to their patrons. In 2004, less than 20 percent of libraries had such a capability (Bertot, et al., 2005). Currently, 76.4 percent of public libraries — a more than 20 percent increase from last year — offer a wireless connection, as shown in Table 7. Urban and low poverty libraries are most likely to have wireless capabilities. Of those who do not have it, 9.2 percent have plans to offer it within the next year. However, 14.4 percent of libraries still have no plans. Rural and high poverty libraries are most likely to be planning to make wireless Internet available in the next year, while libraries in rural (18.8 percent) and medium poverty (18.9 percent) communities most often report that they had no plans to make wireless available. However, as with increases in the number of workstations, the addition of wireless Internet users can decrease the overall sufficiency of access within the library. In addition, wireless does not meet community and patron needs in the same way as workstations, as wireless is usually only useful to patrons who have access to a laptop computer.

c. Training and services available


Table 8: Public library services available to users by metropolitan status and poverty.
Notes: Will not total 100%, as respondents could select more than one option.
Weighted missing values, n=385.
 Metropolitan statusPoverty level 
Licensed databases96.6%
Homework resources90.5%
Audio content (e.g., podcasts, audio books, other)84.1%
Digital reference/virtual reference75.1%
Video content63.4%
Online instructional courses/tutorials52.1%


Public libraries may offer a variety of services involving the Internet, with the most common being listed in Table 8. Libraries most often offer services such as licensed databases (89.6 percent), homework resources (79.6 percent), audio content (72.9 percent), and digital reference/virtual reference (62.4 percent). Also of significance is that libraries that are able to offer audio content and e–books, in particular, have more than doubled since the prior survey. Certain services — ranging from video conferencing (6.1 percent) to digitized special collections (36.1 percent) — are available in a relatively small number of libraries. Similar to the previous survey (Bertot, et al., 2008), libraries in urban and high poverty communities are the most likely to provide services related to Internet access.


Table 9: Public access Internet services critical to the role of the public library outlet by metropolitan status and poverty.
Notes: Will not total 100%, as respondents could select more than one option.
Weighted missing values, n=587.
 Metropolitan statusPoverty level 
Public Internet servicesUrbanSuburbanRuralLowMediumHighOverall
Provide education resources and databases for K–12 students81.9%
Provide services for job–seekers66.9%
Provide access to government information (e.g., tax forms, Medicare, paying traffic tickets)55.2%
Provide education resources and databases for adult/continuing education students53.1%
Provide education resources and databases for students in higher education38.5%
Provide computer and Internet skills training48.2%
Provide education resources and databases for home schooling26.1%
Provide information about the library’s community26.1%
Provide information for local economic development21.4%
Provide information for college applicants7.2%
Provide services to immigrant populations19.0%
Provide information or databases regarding investments6.8%


Through the wide range of Internet–related services, public libraries are able to meet or support many vital needs in their local community. As Table 9 demonstrates, these services most often are education resources and databases for K–12 students (78.6 percent), services for job seekers (65.9 percent), access to government information (60.9 percent), and resources and databases for adult/continuing education students (49.5 percent). Services for job seekers and education resources have made substantial increases from the levels reported in the previous survey. Services for job seekers jumped in one year from 44 percent to 65.9 percent. Education resources for K–12 students increased in the same period from 67.7 percent to 78.6 percent, while adult/continuing education services expanded from 29.8 percent to 49.5 percent. With the case of job seeker services, it seems likely that this change is also related to increased demand for such help as a result of the current economic climate.


Table 10: Public library outlets offering formal or informal technology training by metropolitan status and poverty.
Note: Weighted missing values, n=357.
 Metropolitan statusPoverty level 
Training availabilityUrbanSuburbanRuralLowMediumHighOverall
Offers informal point–of–use assistance38.0%
Offers formal technology training classes52.5%
Offers online training material3.2%
Does not offer any technology training6.3%


In addition to the services they provide via Internet access, many public libraries also offer training to patrons on a variety of topics that involve Internet use. As shown in Table 10, 35 percent of libraries provide formal Internet training for patrons, and 52.6 percent provide informal training as the patrons request it. A small number of libraries (2.7 percent) also offer online training materials. Only 9.7 percent of libraries offer no type of training.


Table 11: Formal technology training classes offered by public library outlets by metropolitan status and poverty.
Notes: Will not total 100%, as categories are not mutually exclusive.
Weighted missing values, n=63.
 Metropolitan statusPoverty level 
Technology training classesUrbanSuburbanRuralLowMediumHighOverall
General Internet use (e.g., set up e–mail, Web browsing)94.7%
General computer skills (e.g., how to use mouse, keyboard, printing)93.9%
General online/Web searching (e.g., using Google, Yahoo, others)72.0%
General software use (e.g., word processing, spreadsheets, presentation)66.9%
Using library’s online public access catalog (OPAC)44.2%
Using online databases (e.g., commercial databases to search and find content)51.0%
Accessing online job–seeking and career–related information36.9%
Safe online practices (e.g., not divulging personal information)24.8%
Accessing online government information (e.g., Medicare, taxes, how to complete forms)35.4%
Digital photography, software and online applications (e.g., Photoshop, Flickr)15.9%
Accessing online medical information (e.g., health literacy)20.5%
Web 2.0 (e.g., blogging, RSS)16.4%
Accessing online investment information11.8%


The types of formal and informal Internet training available in libraries covers a wide range of topics, the most common of which are listed in Table 11. General Internet use (92.8 percent), general computer skills (91.3 percent), general online/Web searching (76.9 percent), and general software use (70.5 percent) are the most frequently provided types of training. Somewhat surprisingly, training related to job–seeking (26.9 percent), government (24.7percent), medical (17.8 percent), and investment (9.8 percent) information each were provided in approximately a quarter or fewer of libraries. Training on how to access online government, job–seeking, and career information is more likely to be provided in urban communities than in suburban or rural. Newer areas of Internet activity — such as Web 2.0 (11.2 percent) — were also among the less frequent types of training available.

d. Parameters on access


Table 12: Public library outlets time limits for patron use of workstations by metropolitan status and poverty.
Note: Weighted missing values, n=69.
 Metropolitan statusPoverty level 
This library does not have time limits for public Internet workstations.2.2%
This library does have time limits for public Internet workstations.97.8%


Due to pressures to meet the Internet needs of many patrons and limitations on adequacy and sufficiency of access, the vast majority of libraries are forced to place parameters on access. As revealed in Table 12, almost all libraries manage patrons’ use of Internet workstations through time limits (94.1 percent). Only 5.8 percent of respondents reported that they do not have time limits. The percentage of libraries with time limits is nearly identical to what was reported in the previous survey (93.4 percent).


Table 13: Public library outlets management of public Internet workstation time limits by metropolitan status and poverty.
Note: Weighted missing values, n=21.
 Metropolitan statusPoverty level 
Manual list of users managed by staff17.6%
Library access only computer reservation and time management software63.9%
“Honor system” — rely on patrons to end sessions voluntarily1.9%
Remotely accessed or in–library computer reservation and time management software13.4%


There are several means through which libraries manage these time limits (Table 13). The most common is a manual registration of users that is managed by the library staff (43.5 percent), followed closely by a computer reservation within the library only and time management software (38.7 percent). Manual registrations and the “honor system” are most often employed in libraries in rural and low poverty communities. Remote accessed and in–library computer reservation and time management software are most frequently used by libraries in urban and high poverty areas. These trends in time management strategies are similar to those reported in the previous survey.


Table 14: Public library outlets length of time to get computers back in service by metropolitan status and poverty.
Note: Weighted missing values, n=234.
 Metropolitan statusPoverty level 
Length of timeUrbanSuburbanRuralLowMediumHighOverall
Less than one day15.4%
One day28.9%
Two days33.8%
More than two days15.0%
Don’t know2.9%
Other amount of time4.0%


Another parameter on access is the time needed to service workstations that need to be repaired or replaced (Table 14). When a computer goes out of service, libraries report that it may typically take from one (24.1 percent) to two (24.6 percent) days to be repaired. Slightly fewer libraries said that it might take over two days (23.9 percent) — these libraries are mostly in rural and high poverty areas. Approximately 17 percent of libraries, primarily from suburban and low–poverty communities, report that their workstations are fixed in less than one day, which could possibly be due to the fact that they have more resources.

An additional parameter on access is what has been identified as the infrastructure plateau — a place where infrastructure factors such as space, capacity, staff, and funding limit the expansion of Internet access (McClure, et al., 2007). Following on previous studies, several major infrastructure measures in the survey provide evidence of this plateau:

  • Overall, 26.0 percent percent of respondents report that their connection is the maximum speed that they can acquire, 22.9 percent cannot afford to increase their bandwidth, and 14.7 percent could increase their bandwidth but have no plans to do so. Thus, 63.6 percent of libraries indicate that they will not be increasing their bandwidth for a range of reasons — affordability, ability, or availability.
  • The average number of public access Internet workstations is 11, a number that has not changed significantly since 2002 (2002: 10.8; 2004: 10.4; 2006: 10.4; 2007: 10.7).



Issues and implications

Analysis of the data from the 2007 survey pointed to an emerging trend that raised serious concerns for public libraries — patron and community needs for Internet access, training, and services were quickly outpacing the ability of libraries to meet those needs (Bertot, et al., 2008a, 2008b; McClure, et al., 2007). This situation was the result of a confluence of major factors such as public libraries being the only source of free public Internet access in three–quarters of communities; the movement of more and more educational, entertainment, and economic activities online; the increasing reliance of governments on libraries to ensure public access to e–government; the greater bandwidth required by popular social networking applications; and, libraries not having sufficient physical, staff, funding, and support resources to meet these demands.

The 2008 data indicate that this situation has, on the whole, grown more difficult for libraries as demand continues to rise — due to the issues noted above and to new pressures as a result of the ongoing worldwide economic crisis. Key pieces of data from the survey document the gravity of the problem:

  • Library hours of operation have decreased on average, with especially large drops among libraries in high poverty and urban areas;
  • The average number of computer terminals is roughly the same as it was in 2002, yet demand continues to increase;
  • Only 18.9 percent of libraries report always having a sufficient number of workstations to meet demand;
  • Only 39.9 percent of libraries indicate that their connection speed is sufficient to meet patron needs at all times, and just 28.6 percent of urban libraries and 25.1 percent of high poverty libraries report sufficient connection speeds; and,
  • Almost all libraries (94.1 percent) have time limits on how long a patron can use a computer, and a majority of these time limits are under an hour, thus not providing users with adequate computer time.

These data are significant in light of the rapidly growing reliance of many patrons on libraries to help them struggle through the current economic climate.

People are using library computers to apply for jobs and assistance at record numbers, but have to contend with fewer hours that the library is open, inadequate numbers of computers and connection speed, and time limits that constrain their ability to fill out online applications, send e–mail messages to potential employers, and search and apply for assistance. Consider just the issue of time limits for patrons who are unemployed — waiting to get access and then trying to complete applications as fast as possible before the computer times them out, possibly loosing all of the work if the computer times them out while they are partially finished with an online application form.

These issues are most significant in urban and high poverty areas, where the need for these services is the greatest and the inequalities are already the largest. Gaps in access have long existed for a range of reasons (Bertot, 2003; Hall, 2007; Jaeger, et al., 2007a; Jaeger and Yan, 2009). However, the disproportionately high reductions of hours, lack of sufficient computers, and lack of sufficient connection speeds among urban and high–poverty libraries means that the most disadvantaged communities of the country are suffering the largest decreases in access to the library computers that are so central to employment and education. These increasing gaps in access threaten to further disadvantage the populations most in need of access and assistance.

In some fashion, though, virtually every library in the United States struggles with the tremendous responsibilities ensuring Internet access, training, and services. All of the articles in the mainstream media that have discussed the spike in library usage due to the economic climate have made the point that the libraries are providing these services in the midst of dwindling budgets, over–taxed facilities, such as carpet being worn through due to increased traffic with no funds available to do anything about it, and over–extended staff members, who now act as librarians, technology trainers, and social workers rolled into one (Carlton, 2009; CNN, 2009; Van Sant, 2009). But the strains are always visible, and libraries engage in various approaches so as not to make them obvious.

Despite some changes, the infrastructure plateau continues to plague libraries, both in terms of quantity and quality of access. Social networking and other Web 2.0 media constantly demand greater amounts of the connection pipeline, as more people use them for entertainment and communication and the content involves more formats that hog bandwidth, especially audio and video files. And these patron interests compete for computer time with the large number of patrons who now need the computers and connection speed to apply for jobs and seek assistance. While the number of libraries with connection speeds of 769kbps or greater increased from 73.1 percent to 79.3 percent, the perpetual upward spiral of demands on connection speed make such gains the equivalent of running to stand still.

The sizeable increases in wireless access also do not present a solution to meeting ever–increasing demands. Wireless access usually draws upon the same connection as the rest of the library, meaning that every wireless computer that patrons bring into the library degrades the overall quality of the connection for the other users in the library. In addition, unless the library loans out laptops to patrons, wireless access will only benefit patrons who already have their own laptop. The people who most need the computers and Internet access in libraries, however, certainly are not likely to own their laptops.

Not necessarily of their own choosing, public libraries have become the social institution expected to mitigate the digital divide by providing computer and Internet access, training, and services to people who have no access, who have insufficient access, or who need help (Bertot, et al., 2006a). But as the data above have documented, the rising demands and dwindling support, and in some cases substantial budget cuts resulting from the economic crisis — combined with the already extant infrastructure plateau — have made it increasingly difficult to meet these expectations. Though patrons, communities, and governments at all levels take for granted the ability of libraries to meet computer and Internet needs, the realities of the current situation are raising red flags about these assumptions.

The level to which libraries are taken for granted is displayed in the language describing the federal government stimulus money designated for broadband projects. Though the broadband funds are designed to build infrastructure and capacity, the ability of libraries — as individual entities, part of systems, or even across entire states — to apply for, participate in, and benefit from the funds are unclear at best. Despite the enormous role of public libraries in providing Internet access, they were not guaranteed to receive a certain percentage of the funding and were not even specifically articulated as eligible applicants. Yet without significant additional support for Internet-related access, training, and services, it is unreasonable to assume that public libraries will be able to meet the needs and expectations of patrons, communities, and governments.

Though this article focused on the findings from the Internet surveys, it is important to mention the American Recovery and Rehabilitation Act (ARRA) that included US$7.2 billion in broadband stimulus funding and loans. The bill included a minimum of US$200 million for public computer centers in libraries, community colleges, and schools; US$250 million for sustainable broadband initiatives (e.g., training and education), and US$3.8 billion for infrastructure deployment in unserved and underserved areas (see for details on the broadband stimulus programs). Prior to the release of the Notice of Funding Availability (NOFA) on 30 June 2009 by NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration, at and RUS (Rural Utilities Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, at, there was substantial hope and expectation that public libraries, as community anchor institutions, could directly benefit from stimulus funding for broadband buildout and deployment. Libraries clearly qualify for the public computer center and sustainable broadband funding categories, but these are small funding sources and do not permit broadband deployment. It is unclear at this time whether libraries will truly benefit from the infrastructure funding, as the NOFA defined unserved and underserved entities as consumers (residential and business), and not anchor institutions such as libraries. It is therefore uncertain as to whether public libraries will see any direct enhancement of their broadband availability in the near term — and thus be able to improve the quality of the Internet–enabled services that they offer to their patrons and communities. Rather, if libraries do benefit, it will likely be as a byproduct of consumer buildout.



Future challenges and research

Public libraries have long been committed to the serving the interests — be they educational, recreational, economic, or governmental — of all elements of their communities. As funding erodes, however, and Internet usage increases, public libraries clearly find themselves in an untenable position. Without a meaningful commitment from local, state, and federal governments to provide greater support for libraries, they simply cannot continue to be all things to all people. Though it goes against library missions of service to all, libraries may soon face having to make service choices in relation to the Internet. Given the range of Internet service roles that public libraries have the potential to provide (McClure and Jaeger, 2008), such choices, however, would not be easy. Moreover, the ability of libraries to provide Internet–enabled roles adequately given their inability to develop adequate capacity plans and/or secure robust bandwidth is increasingly an issue (Bertot, 2009).

For example, if usage of social networking tools, online gaming, and personal e–mail are limited to ensure more time and capacity for people seeking jobs, interacting with government, and doing educational work, such a choice would be emphasizing the more essential aspects of Internet usage, but it would also deprive many patrons of a main source of communication and entertainment. One outgrowth of the economic crisis is an increase in the number of people seeking the free entertainment available at the library (Carlton, 2009; Van Sant, 2009). Reducing access to these services would disappoint many patrons who are seeking solace from the harsh realities of the physical world.

Along with limiting certain types of usage of computers and connections, another impact could be seen in insufficient funds to afford electronic materials. A reduction of licensed databases to which libraries subscribe seems possible as a cost–cutting measure. But since these databases are primarily used for educational purposes, such reductions would be undermining one of the greatest benefits of public libraries to their communities.

Public libraries and the Internet access, training, and services they provide are in the strange position of being relied upon to an unprecedented extent while enduring decreases in support and increasing difficulty in meeting the volume of usage needs of patrons, communities, and governments. Navigating these challenges will consume much of next several years in the life of public libraries, and the ways in which libraries face these challenges will likely define the future relationship between public libraries and the Internet. Overcoming the infrastructure plateau and meeting demands for access, training, and services would be difficult in the best of economic times. Troubled economic times are already cutting hours of operation and further straining the sufficiency of computers and connection speeds. More disheartening developments — such as service reductions — may loom on the horizon.

These impacts on library services will have implication not only for Internet access, training, and services, but for expectations and perceptions of libraries by patrons and communities, the reliance of governments on libraries, and many other central library activities as well. It is imperative that research document and analyze the impacts of the economic troubles on public libraries both to provide libraries with approaches and strategies and to understand changes to uses and expectations of libraries in such times. Data produced by this type of research may also help to make the case for increased library funding to governments. Though the Public Libraries and the Internet surveys have documented many changes over the past 15 years, the findings from the 2008 survey indicate that the surveys over the next several years will document a time of significant challenges for public libraries in serving their patrons, communities, and governments as the institution guaranteeing Internet access, training, and services for all those who need them. End of article


About the authors

John Carlo Bertot is Professor, and Director of the Center for Library & Information Innovation in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland.
E–mail: jbertot [at] umd [dot] edu

Paul T. Jaeger is Assistant Professor and Director of teh Center for Information Policy and Electronic Government in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland.
E–mail: pjaeger [at] umd [dot] edu.

Charles R. McClure is Francis Eppes Professor, and Director of the Information Institute in the College of Communication and Information at Florida State University.
E–mail: cmcclure [at] fsu [dot] edu.

Carla B. Wright is a Graduate Research Associate in the Information Institute, College of Communication and Information at Florida State University.

Elise Jensen is a Graduate Research Assistant in the Information Institute, College of Communication and Information at Florida State University.



The authors wish to thank the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the American Library Association for their funding of the Internet survey. The survey is conducted as part of the larger Public Library Funding and Technology Access study ( run by the American Library Association.



1. It is important to note that roughly 80 percent of U.S. public libraries are single building systems, and thus have only one service outlet that also serves as the library administrative entity.



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Editorial history

Paper received 6 October 2009; accepted 19 October 2009.

Copyright © 2009, First Monday.

Copyright © 2009, John Carlo Bertot, Paul T. Jaeger, Charles R. McClure, Carla B. Wright, and Elise Jensen.

Public libraries and the Internet 2008-2009: Issues, implications, and challenges
by John Carlo Bertot, Paul T. Jaeger, Charles R. McClure, Carla B. Wright, and Elise Jensen.
First Monday, Volume 14, Number 11 - 2 November 2009

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

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