June 30, 2010 By Karen Wilkinson
As government agencies push what have traditionally been paper-based processes and services online, public libraries are seeing more demand for access to technology so that citizens can interact with their government. But there's a catch-22: Public libraries are faced with reduced funding and shorter operating hours.
A report released this month shows that while the public is increasingly using the Internet at libraries for job and e-government resources, funding cuts at state and local levels are forcing libraries to "literally lock away access to these resources as they reduce operating hours."
Conducted by the American Library Association (ALA) and the Center for Library and Information Innovation at the University of Maryland, the annual study provides a "state of the library" report on technology resources libraries offer and funding that enables free access to these critical resources. The 2009-2010 Public Library Funding and Technology Access Study can be found here.
"Computers and Internet access at public libraries connect millions of Americans to economic, educational and social opportunity each year, but libraries struggle to replace aging computer workstations and provide the high-speed Internet connections patrons need," Jill Nishi, deputy director of U.S. Libraries at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said in a press release. The foundation funded the study along with the ALA. "As demand for these services rise, public and private investment to support public access technology at libraries is more critical than ever."
The continual depletion of local and state tax bases -- resulting in large part from high unemployment rates (reduced income tax revenue), the troubled housing market (decreased property tax) and declines in sales tax receipts -- has seriously affected 45 states and the District of Columbia, the report says. The problem has trickled down to public library funding.
For example, the study found that nearly 15 percent of libraries (or roughly 2,400 locations) reported reduced operating hours, with "urban libraries" leading the trend -- with nearly one-quarter of them reporting fewer hours in 2009. Also, 55 percent of urban libraries reported funding cuts in fiscal 2010, the report stated.
"Unfortunately what happens is even while libraries have been able to stabilize their technology investments, they're just not available to the community because the doors are closed," said ALA Office for Research and Statistics project manager Laura Clark, who also edited and contributed to the study. "The level of skill and engagement that's required to survive, let alone thrive online, is really significant and our libraries are on the front line of seeing that."
Some statistical highlights from the report include:
And at a time of high unemployment and more people depending on government social services to get by, libraries are seeing more paper forms becoming available online only. "From unemployment benefits to state tax forms, more government information and services are moving online, often without a print alternative," the ALA press release said.
Government agencies are increasingly referring people to their local public libraries for assistance and Internet access for citizen-government interactions, without providing financial support to libraries in meeting this need, the report said.
"To get any kind of government form now, you have