New Report Finds Libraries Help Close Digital Divide but Struggle to Sustain Public Access Computing Services

Bill Gates, Sr. releases report developed in partnership with national civic organizations at Public Library Association conference

SEATTLE — The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, in partnership with a number of national civic groups, today released a new report that finds public libraries have helped close the digital divide by providing free, public access to computers and the Internet, particularly for people without access at home or work. Yet despite widespread awareness of and support for library-based public access computing, libraries face significant challenges in sustaining and improving this service.

The report, “Toward Equality of Access: The Role of Public Libraries in Addressing the Digital Divide,” was developed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in collaboration with the AARP, American Library Association, Beaumont Foundation of America, Benton Foundation, Institute of Museum and Library Services, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, National League of Cities and U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The Pew Internet & American Life Project, funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, served as research advisers.

In 1996, only 28 percent of public library systems offered public Internet access. Today, more than 95 percent of library buildings offer public access computing, and 14 million Americans regularly use these computers. This benefit has especially reached certain socioeconomic groups that are less likely to have access at home or work. African Americans and Hispanics are twice as likely to use library computers as Asian Americans and whites. Families making less than $15,000 annually are two to three times more likely to rely on library computers than those earning more than $75,000.

“Today, if you can reach a public library, you can reach the Internet,” said Bill Gates, Sr., co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and a featured speaker at the Public Library Association conference. “The challenge now is to continue providing this access that millions of our neighbors depend upon. Cuts in library budgets won’t turn off the Internet for wealthy or middle-class families. It will turn off the Internet for people who have nowhere else to turn.”

Although Internet use has increased substantially in the United States, nearly half of all American households don’t have computers or Internet access at home. Traditionally disadvantaged groups, including African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans and those with lower income and educational levels, remain among the least connected.

“By offering free access to computing, and therefore information, libraries bring opportunity to all,” said Carla Hayden, president of the American Library Association. “Libraries offer more than hardware—librarians are tech-savvy and help library users gain the skills needed to use technology effectively and find what they need online and in print.”

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has worked in partnership with public libraries since 1997, investing more than $250 million to provide libraries with public access computers and software, while simultaneously providing training and technical support for librarians.

Research shows that patrons use library computers to conduct research, write resumes, keep in touch with family and friends and complete assignments for school or work. According to a recent Marist Institute study, Americans believe that providing computers for public use is one of the three most important things a library can do. Beyond high patron satisfaction and demand, the technology has revitalized libraries. Nationwide, total visits to the library have increased by more than 17 percent between 1996 and 2001.

Despite these benefits, libraries face serious challenges as they continue to provide access to digital information. In keeping pace with ever-evolving technology, libraries often lack sufficient resources and technical support to upgrade computer hardware, software and Internet connections. Librarians and staff members also must seek continued technology training to assist patrons and troubleshoot equipment. Severe budget cuts nationwide have caused some libraries to cut operating hours, lay off staff members or close altogether.

Gates released the new report during a speech at the 10th biennial conference of the Public Library Association (PLA), a division of the American Library Association, where he also outlined the next phase of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s support for public libraries. The foundation plans to build broader partnerships with local governments, business, foundations, nonprofits, libraries and library supporters that will help keep libraries open, improve technology and support ongoing training.

The report may be accessed at: [Link updated June 21, 2010] ###

On the Internet:

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation,
American Library Association,
Beaumont Foundation of America,
Benton Foundation,
Institute of Museum and Library Services,
Leadership Conference on Civil Rights,
National League of Cities,
Pew Internet & American Life Project,
U.S. Chamber of Commerce,