A majority of the United States nearly 17,000 public libraries provide programs to help identify health insurance resources and also training to increase familiarity with new technologies, according to a new study from the American Library Association (ALA). This year’s Digital Inclusion Survey caps two decades of research on public libraries and the internet and the expanded roles libraries are playing in their communities.
“Today libraries are less about what we have than what we can do with and for our patrons,” ALA President Sari Feldman said. “The need for help navigating new health insurance resources in the wake of the Affordable Care Act is one very good example of this—as is the steady growth in Wi-Fi and mobile library resources. As community demands shift, libraries are transforming.”
The Connecticut State Library, for one, expects health literacy needs to continue to grow. “What we are hearing from our health exchange,” said Connecticut State Librarian Kendall Wiggin, “is that in addition to assisting individuals to register, many of those who have registered lack an understanding of how to utilize their health insurance.” To help address this need, the State Library is hosting a Health Literacy Fair in early November to connect librarians with health information experts to discuss available resources provided by a wide range of agencies. According to the survey, 77% of libraries provide online health resources, and a majority offer programs to help people locate and evaluate health information.
“Libraries advance individual opportunity and community progress through The E’s of Libraries—education, employment, entrepreneurship, empowerment, and engagement,” Feldman added. The Digital Inclusion Survey finds, for instance, that:
- Virtually all libraries (98%) offer free public Wi-Fi access;
- 95% of libraries offer summer reading programs to forestall the “summer slide” in reading achievement experienced when learning takes a holiday between school terms;
- Close to 90% of libraries offer basic digital literacy training, and a significant majority support training related to new technology devices (62%), safe online practices (57%) and social media use (56%);
- 76% of libraries assist patrons in using online government programs and services;
- The vast majority of libraries provide programs that support people in applying for jobs (73%), access and using online job opportunity resources (68%) and using online business information resources (48%);
- A significant majority of libraries host social connection events for adults (61%) and teens (60%) such as book discussion groups or gaming programs;
- 45% of libraries provide early-learning technologies for pre-K children; and
- More than one-third of all libraries provide literacy, GED prep, STEAM and afterschool programs.
Digital content offerings also continue to climb, with more than 90% of public libraries offering e-books, online homework assistance (95%) and online language learning (56%), to name a few. A recent survey from library ebook supplier OverDrive finds that more than 120 million e-books and audiobooks were borrowed from libraries they supply in the first nine months of 2015, representing year-over-year growth of almost 20%.
Funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services and managed by the ALA Office for Research & Statistics and the Information Policy and Access Center at the University of Maryland, the Digital Inclusion Study provides national- and state-level data. The International City/County Management Association and ALA Office for Information Technology Policy are partners in the research effort.
For the first time, the survey also looked at the age of library buildings and found 1970 was the average year that library locations opened. In addition to predating ubiquitous public technology access, the report also finds a correlation between building renovations and increased service offerings. The biggest gaps can be seen in libraries offering afterschool programming and STEAM events, in which 52% and 48% of renovated libraries, respectively, offered these services compared with 33% and 31% for libraries without renovations in the past five years.
“This new analysis points to an outsize impact on community services in cases where the physical space is not able to keep pace with modern technology needs,” said John Bertot, survey lead researcher and professor and co-director of the Information Policy and Access Center at the University of Maryland.
One in five public libraries has renovated buildings in the past five years, and two-thirds of all libraries upgraded technology infrastructure in the past 24 months. The most common renovations were to upgrade electrical or network capacity and enhance or add general spaces in the library. The most common technology upgrades were to replace computers or increase bandwidth. In all cases, however, rural libraries significantly lag their counterparts in larger population areas. While broadband capacity is inching up, 15% of rural libraries still have subscribed download speeds of 1.5 Mbps or less. Overall 82 percent of libraries (and 96% of rural libraries) fall below the minimum 100 Mbps broadband capacity recommended by the Federal Communications Commission.
“It is encouraging to see growth in the resources available through our nation’s public libraries, but the improvements are uneven, and there is more work to be done,” said Larra Clark, deputy director of the ALA Office for Information Technology Policy. “Libraries constitute a national critical infrastructure that delivers diverse services to people of all ages and backgrounds. We must fund and leverage this asset to advance national priorities related to educational and economic opportunity and progress.