Digital Challenges For U.S. Public Libraries : All Tech Considered Public libraries grow their Internet services while facing cuts
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Digital Challenges For U.S. Public Libraries

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Digital Challenges For U.S. Public Libraries

Digital Challenges For U.S. Public Libraries

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And Robert Siegel.

And it's time now for All Tech Considered.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: And today we're checking out the public library. When you're laid off and digitally cutoff, there's no place like the library to get yourself situated online. There's a new study about how important that role of the library is these days. And joining us now, as he does often in this part of the program, is Omar Gallaga, who covers technology culture of the Austin American-Statesman. Welcome back, Omar.

OMAR GALLAGA: Hi, Robert, good to be here.

SIEGEL: And tell us about who did this study and what it tells us.

GALLAGA: Well, this was a funding and technology study from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the American Library Association. This was released today and kind of mixed blessings here on Internet access in libraries. The Internet access in libraries are being used more. The technology is getting better. The access is getting better. But libraries are facing other challenges like reduced hours, funding cuts.

So although they are providing more services to more people, including things like Wi-Fi, it seems that they're facing other challenges that are actually building some walls between them and the people that need these services the most.

SIEGEL: Now, I associate talk about the digital divide with the 1990s. But this report suggests that many communities are still struggling with digital access.

GALLAGA: Right. We've been talking about this a long time and the FCC has been looking into continuing to extend Internet access, especially to rural areas, places that we don't have ubiquitous Wi-Fi or broadband. But this is hitting libraries pretty hard because in a lot of these areas where there isn't a Starbucks or a coffee house with Wi-Fi on every corner, these are places where people go to use computers. They may not have a computer or broadband in the home, and they're using these libraries to do things like fill out job applications online, to do job searches, to fill out government e-forms.

This is the only place that a lot of people have to turn to. And for those that can afford a mobile phone with Internet access or a broadband connection at home, it really might be their only option. So libraries are really trying to fill a need but, you know, with reduced hours and funding cuts that they're really facing a bit of an uphill battle.

SIEGEL: But have mobile phones, which have gotten cheaper and also more sophisticated, have they to some extent helped to bridge this gap?

GALLAGA: They have in some areas, especially among kids, a lot of kids who may not even have broadband access at home may have a cell phone and may be using that as their primary Internet gateway. There's been a lot of study from the Pew Research Center about that. And it's very interesting, especially among low income and among minorities, African-Americans and Latinos, teenagers are actually surpassing Caucasians in terms of mobile broadband use. So they're the ones who are accessing the Internet via their cell phones the most. But a lot of times that's in lieu of having a home broadband connection.

And where that suffers is they may not have parents at home who are Internet savvy. They may not be able to guide a teenager through issues like cyber bullying or sexting that they may encounter. So they definitely are at a disadvantage even if they are more savvy about using cell phones for Internet.

SIEGEL: Omar, how typical is this image of the library as the place where people can go and have easy, free Internet Access, if not Wi-Fi access?

GALLAGA: I think a lot of people think of the public library as having, you know, the ancient beige computer and slow Internet access. But, really, they have done very well in providing faster Internet access and providing things like Wi-Fi - 82 percent of libraries report that they provide free Wi-Fi access. And 67 percent of the libraries that were in this study say that they are the only provider of free public access to computers and the Internet.

So they really are an important community resources. They are helping people fill out government forms, file their taxes, look for jobs when you have 15 percent of them saying they're reducing their hours, that's really a dangerous thing, especially given the economy. And that a lot of people don't have fast Internet at home or maybe even a computer.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Omar.

GALLAGA: Thanks for having me. We'll be posting a link to the study and lots of other information on the All Tech Considered blog at

SIEGEL: Okay. Omar Gallaga, who covers technology for the Austin American-Statesman and here for All Tech Considered.

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