Internet and the Libraries: Both are here to stay!

libraryWhile I was doing training in Windom last week, one of the students asked if I thought there was a role for libraries as we know them in the future – after all won’t everything be going online. So it was fun later in the week to run into the recent survey from Pew Internet & American Life that demonstrates that libraries are still vital…

Fully 91% of Americans ages 16 and older say public libraries are important to their communities; and 76% say libraries are important to them and their families. And libraries are touchpoints in their communities for the vast majority of Americans: 84% of Americans ages 16 and older have been to a library or bookmobile at some point in their lives and 77% say they remember someone else in their family using public libraries as they were growing up.

Here are the top activities people say they perform in the library…

  • 73% of library patrons in the past 12 months say they visit to browse the shelves for books or media.
  • 73% say they visit to borrow print books.
  • 54% say they visit to research topics that interest them.
  • 50% say they visit to get help from a librarian. Asked how often they get help from library staff in such things as answering research questions, 31% of library patrons in the past 12 months say they frequently get help, 39% say they sometimes get help, 23% say they hardly ever get help, and 7% say they never get help.

And as far as libraries and technology go…

Some 26% of Americans ages 16 and older say they used the computers there or the WiFi connection to go online.

The Gates Foundation also released a recent survey on libraries and Internet access finding that…

Over the past year, 45 percent of the 169 million visitors to public libraries connected to the Internet using a library computer or wireless network during their visit, even though more than three quarters of these people had Internet access at home, work, or elsewhere. The widespread use of these services by people of varying age, income, and experience is an indication of the unique role that public libraries play in the evolving digital landscape.

So I think the short answer is yes – people need libraries now and will need them in the future. But I also think it can be helpful to flesh out computer use at the library a bit. Last week, Minnesota Public Radio ran a story on the role of libraries in tackling the digital divide. MPR makes the point that while there are a couple of demographic segments that seem more challenged than others (older people, African Americans and folks in rural areas) that poverty is the most striking factor…

But income is the real dividing line. More than 90 percent of people with incomes over $75,000 a year are online. That’s compared with just 55 percent of those making less than $30,000 a year.

The article alludes to the idea that eventually the divide will close itself…

“There’s a lot of talk of digital divide, and most people seem to think that it will go away on its own as generations change and there’s Internet access all around,” says Young. “But I feel really strongly that it won’t without a lot of outside support, making Internet access more affordable, getting the resources out there and telling people how to use the resources.”

I don’t think that gap will close itself. I think there will always be some technology and communications that will be financially beyond the reach of some of us. I think that libraries will continue to be a place to access technology – today computers and broadband, in the near future that might broaden to include telepresence center or even kiosks to provide access for individuals and groups.

I also think the role of the librarian will remain is key. As Pew study indicates, talking to a librarian is a top activity at the library. And I think librarians will continue to be a key for closing the digital divide through education partially because I think the far end of the digital divide will constantly be moving – we all have something we can learn to improve our use of technology and broadband.

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