Literacy and Access Roles Help Libraries Remain Vital Community Anchors

Libraries of all types are viewed as anchors, centers for academic life and research and cherished spaces

Perhaps we all grew up thinking of libraries as buildings or rooms within a building with stores of books, magazines, recorded music and video waiting for us to browse and maybe even take home. But for anyone who thinks that in the Digital Age, when so much information is available through our computers and other devices, that libraries are any less relevant than they’ve ever been, new research released this week confirms how vital these institutions remain today.

Libraries Are Community Anchors
On April 12, the American Library Association released The State of America’s Libraries Report, a look at how libraries are perceived by their communities and society. The bottom line: libraries of all types are viewed as anchors, centers for academic life and research and cherished spaces. Public libraries and librarians are viewed as change agents by addressing unique needs and identifying trends that impact the community. The majority of public libraries offer neutral space for patrons, residents and students to discuss and resolve critical issues.

Public libraries are community anchors that address economic, education, and health disparities in the community. Educational programs, print and digital books, databases, meeting spaces, and instruction on how to use new technologies are among the many resources and services provided by libraries. More than two-thirds of Americans agree that libraries are important because they improve the quality of life in a community, promote literacy and reading, and provide many people with a chance to succeed.

A key function libraries serve is nurturing 21st-century information literacy skills. Research shows that families are increasing their access to digital media, but they lack the knowledge to use it effectively in a way that enables learning. With the traditional school day only a small part of the overall time that students spend learning, especially using technology, learning is a 24/7 enterprise for students today. Embedded in schools is a culture almost entirely based on information, shaped and defined by the student. They consume it, share it, produce it, and publish it. Forty-six percent (46%) of principals say that digital content -- such as videos, simulations, and animations -- is having the greatest impact on transforming teaching and learning. And 40 percent of district administrators note the implementation of blended learning environments as having the greatest impact on transforming teaching and learning. School librarians have an opportunity to provide truly personalized learning experiences. From collaborating with classroom teachers to designing inquiry-based learning, school librarians are teaching students critical thinking, technology and information literacy skills. Over 50 percent of school librarians identify themselves as teachers of digital citizenship within their schools. Additionally, public libraries are incorporating more digital media in their programming for young children.

Another role of the library as a community anchor is to provide equitable access to technology and digital content. The Digital Inclusion Survey found that public libraries address these disparities by providing free access to broadband, public access technologies, digital content, digital literacy learning opportunities, and a range of programming that helps build digitally inclusive communities.

The survey found that nearly all (97.5%) public libraries offer free wireless Internet access. Technology training is offered in nearly all (98.0%) public libraries, and nearly all offer education and learning programs (99.5%) and summer reading programs (98.4%). Almost 80% of libraries offer programs that aid patrons with job applications, interview skills, and résumé development. Three-fourths of libraries offer community, civic engagement, or e-government programs. Nearly all libraries offer patrons assistance in completing online government forms.

Libraries and Internet Access

Broadband speeds in U.S. public libraries have improved significantly in recent years yet continue to lag behind national broadband connectivity standards

As regular Benton readers well know, in 2015 the Federal Communications Commission increased the total E-Rate fund -- which provides discounts to libraries and schools to help them obtain affordable internet access -- from $2.4 billion to $3.9 billion annually. The FCC changed its policy to make it easier for libraries and schools to deploy high-speed broadband technologies and develop network infrastructures inside their facilities. The FCC also established national benchmarks that recommend a minimum of 100 Mbps for serving smaller communities and 1 Gbps for libraries serving populations greater than 50,000 people.

On April 16, the ALA released Broadband Quality in Public Libraries, a study which examined the quality of broadband access in more than 2,200 public libraries by collecting data on upload and download speeds in 49 states. ALA and the Information Policy & Access Center (iPAC) at the University of Maryland College Park conclude that broadband speeds in U.S. public libraries have improved significantly in recent years yet continue to lag behind national broadband connectivity standards.

Libraries reported progress in their public Internet speeds -- nearly half of all libraries report subscribed Internet download speeds as being greater than 10 Mbps in 2013, compared with only 18 percent of libraries four years earlier. New speed test data collected from July-August 2014 found median download speeds of 30 Mbps for wired and 13 Mbps for Wi-Fi connections in city libraries and download speeds of 9 Mbps for wired and 6 Mbps for Wi-Fi connections in rural libraries. But despite the growth in increased broadband capacity, two-thirds of all libraries indicate that they would like to improve their broadband speeds. According to the 2013 Digital Inclusion Survey, just 2 percent of all libraries meet the FCC’s new benchmarks.

The report also found that:

  • City and suburban public libraries provide greater quality of service at the device level compared with town and rural libraries, and there is wide variation across libraries;
  • Captured speed delivered to individual users’ devices is significantly less than the subscribed network speed;
  • In most cases, quality of service degrades at peak use times, sometimes dramatically – for example, direct connection download speeds in city libraries are 69% lower during heavy usage vs light usage periods;
  • City/suburban libraries report higher median speeds in their testing – for example, 3.5 Mbps download speed in city libraries compared to a median download speed of 9 Mbps in rural libraries – but also greater degradation during heavy Internet usage times than town and rural libraries; and
  • Captured (and subscribed) upload speeds lag download speeds considerably, impacting libraries’ ability to support emerging services like digital media labs and other user content creation and dissemination.

The researchers encouraged the FCC to expand its Measuring Broadband America (2011-2014) research initiative to include community anchor institutions such as public libraries. Such research would provide a definitive assessment of the quality of broadband services in public libraries and facilitate further development of the E-rate program into the future. Lead researcher John Carlo Bertot said, "We need more and better data related not only to available and subscribed internet speeds, but what is the user experience of this capacity. This new report is a start, but we know that results can be affected by a number of factors, including user device configuration, a library’s local network management, network load, and the design of the speed test tool.”

Rural Libraries Linked to Home Broadband Adoption

Rural associated with higher residential broadband adoption rates

Recent research indicates that broadband access provided by rural libraries may also play a role in higher home broadband access. Brian Whitacre, an Associate Professor of Agricultural Economics at Oklahoma State University, and Colin Rhinesmith, an Assistant Professor of Library and Information Studies at the University of Oklahoma, found that even after controlling for other things that likely influence broadband adoption (such as levels of income, education, and age), an additional library in a rural county was associated with higher residential broadband adoption rates. The size of the relationship was not large -- each additional library would increase the local adoption rate by roughly 1 percent -- however, libraries were the only type of “community anchor institution” to show any kind of relationship. Perhaps most importantly, this link was only found for libraries in the most rural counties.

“Although we can’t definitively state why this link is only seen in rural areas,” Whitacre and Rhinesmith write, “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.”

The researchers say these findings lend themselves to future research questions including how to appropriately measure broadband ‘adoption’ outside of the home and methods for engaging library patrons that ultimately encourage residential broadband adoption.

This week’s research is indicative of not just national, but international trends. The Independent Library Report — published in December 2014 by the U.K.’s Department for Culture, Media, and Sport — found that libraries across that nation are re-inventing themselves by increasingly becoming “vibrant and attractive community hubs,” focusing on the “need to create digital literacy — and in an ideal world, digital fluency.” And the data only confirm previous findings. According to a 2013 Pew poll, for example, 90 percent in the U.S. said their community would be negatively impacted if their local library closed. The same research found that 72% of all Americans ages 16 and older have either used a public library in the past 12 months or live in a household where another family member or a child is an active recent user of the library.

In a 2013 lecture, author Neil Gaiman said, “[L]ibraries are about freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information. I worry that here in the 21st century people misunderstand what libraries are and the purpose of them. If you perceive a library as a shelf of books, it may seem antiquated or outdated in a world in which most, but not all, books in print exist digitally. But that is to miss the point fundamentally.” While asking his audience to begin imagining the future of libraries, Gaiman said, “We have an obligation to support libraries. To use libraries, to encourage others to use libraries, to protest the closure of libraries. If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. You are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future.”

By Kevin Taglang.