Study shows connection between rural libraries and broadband adoption

libraryIn case you’re a new reader, I’ll tell you that I love libraries – so much so that I used to be a librarian. And I love broadband. So I was thrilled (but not surprised) to read in the Daily Yonder

A new study suggests there is a link between libraries and rates of household broadband adoption – but only in the most remote rural counties.  Libraries were the only type of “community anchor institution” to demonstrate this relationship.

Why? Well because libraries are where the people are…

Rural libraries have long been a crucial part of the small-town way of life: from developing reading programs for both youth and adults, to providing a place to go on-line and ask technology questions, to simply serving as a gathering place for community events.  They are often taken for granted by many residents, but are undoubtedly a source of community pride and identity.

Why rural areas?

Although we can’t definitively state why this link is only seen in rural areas, it may be that the relationships between librarians and their patrons in these small towns could lead residents to have more confidence that they can obtain a broadband connection at home.  Alternatively, the library may play a more central role in the lives of many rural people as compared to some urban ones, which could make the benefits of having quick access to the Internet more apparent.

We must caution, however, against making statements of causality.  In fact, we attempted to find out whether the relationship is a causal one by looking explicitly at those libraries that aggressively increased either their number of public computers or hours of public computer use over the period 2008 – 2012.  We found no evidence that these libraries were able to raise local broadband adoption rates faster than other libraries.

I have my own theory on why the impact is greater in rural areas.

Since 1994 I have worked in libraries promoting digital literacy. In 1994 that meant one-on-one training because frankly so few people had heard of the Internet a classroom didn’t make sense. Then for years you could fill a classroom easily by offering classes on anything Internet-related: email, build a website, genealogy… I think, especially in rural areas, we’re back to the one-on-one and very small classes.

There’s still a place in urban and rural libraries for continuing education classes related to Internet access. (Who couldn’t use a class in boosting digital skills? Minneapolis Public just started offering more advanced tech classes via Lynda.com – for example.) But for the real beginners I think small numbers and live training make the difference in adoption levels because (and Jack Geller has spoken of this effect too), we’re reaching the tech laggards. They need more hand-holding. In rural areas this is easier because in serving fewer people the classes stay small and are more effective.

I think the hard part is that we feel that the ROI is measured in people served. Maybe we need to look at the cost of not investing in digital literacy. How will we get healthcare, education, government services to the people who aren’t online – and what will that cost? Those costs will be greater in rural areas – it’s good the libraries are helping close the gap.

This entry was posted in Digital Divide, Research, Rural by Ann Treacy. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ann Treacy

I have a Master’s Degree in Library and Information Science. I have been interested or involved in providing access to information through the Internet since 1994, when I worked for Minnesota’s first Internet service provider. I am pleased to be a part of the Blandin on Broadband Team. I also work with MN Coalition on Government Information, Minnesota Rural Partners, and the American Society for Information Science and Technology.

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