Online Offerings Rise at US Libraries, 68% of Americans Have Library Cards

October 9, 2008

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The US’s public libraries are dramatically increasing new-media offerings and have signed up an all-time high number of cardholders, but online services are – in many cases – still not enough to meet demand, according to studies from the American Library Associaton (ALA).

According to the “Libraries Connect Communities” (pdf) report from the ALA and Florida State University, America’s 16,543 public library buildings are leveraging technology at unprecedented levels to help children succeed in school and support lifelong learning among adults.


Libraries reported increases in the following:

  • Audiobooks and podcasts (available in 71% of US public libraries)
  • Digital reference via email, IM and chat (63%)
  • e-books (52%)
  • Videos (49%)
  • Online instructional courses (43%)

As more people struggle during the financial downturn, many libraries have begun reporting double-digit growth in computer usage in 2008, according to the ALA.

Fully 73% of all libraries – and 83% of rural libraries – are the only source of free public access to computers and the Internet in their communities. More than 83% of libraries offer online homework resources, including live tutors and collections of reliable Web sources – up 15% in one year.

“Today’s libraries are partners in learning – providing free access to expensive online resources that would otherwise be out of reach for most families,” said ALA president Jim Rettig.

Additional technology findings:

  • Two-thirds (66%) of US public libraries offer free wireless access, up about 12% over last year.
  • Almost two-thirds of all public libraries provide 1.5Mbps or faster Internet access speeds, with a continuing disparity between urban (90%) and rural libraries (51.5%).
  • 74% of libraries report their staff helps patrons understand and use e-government services, including enrolling in Medicare and applying for unemployment.
  • 73% of libraries provide technology training to library patrons.

As online content and information becomes more important to both patrons and the business of libraries, library staff time dedicated to helping people get and use online tools is mounting. Library staff reported that they spend an average of 50% or more of their time managing technology and helping patrons learn how to use it effectively.

However, while the number of public Internet computers available climbed for the first time in several years, 20% of libraries report there are consistently fewer computers than patrons who wish to use them. And although libraries are increasing connection speeds to allow for more Internet services and an improved online experience, more than 50% of libraries say their access speed is inadequate to meet demand. Applications such as distance education and multimedia, coupled with near-constant online use and shared wireless and desktop connections, strain available bandwidth.

The most significant challenges facing libraries overall include staffing, funding and computer maintenance and management.


According to a separate survey for the ALA conducted by Harris Interactive, at the same time as technology use grows, US libraries are experiencing a dramatic increase in library card registration. The percentage of library cardholders is 68%, up 5% since 2006 and the highest ever since the ALA began measuring it in 1990.

More than three-quarters (76%) of library cardholders say they visited their local libraries in the past year, up from 66% two years ago. In-person visits are up 10% since 2006, and online visits are up even more substantially – with 41% of library cardholders visiting their library websites in the past year, compared with 24% in 2006.

The poll also found that 39% of card holders visit the library to borrow books; 12% take out CDs, videos or computer software; 10 % use a computer to see what the library has available; 9% use reference materials; and 8% go to the library for Internet access.

“As the nation continues to experience a downturn in the economy, libraries are providing the tools needed to help Americans get back on their feet,” Rettig said. “From free homework help to assisting with resumes and job searches, now more than ever libraries are proving they are valued and trusted resources.”

About the studies: The 2007-2008 “Libraries Connect Communities: Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study,” was conducted by the ALA and the Information Use Management and Policy Institute at Florida State University (FSU), and offers the most current national data available on technology access and funding in US public libraries. It collected data through surveys from more than 5,400 public libraries, a questionnaire to the chief officers of state library agencies, and focus groups and site visits in New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

The Harris Poll regarding library card use was conducted online in the US August 11-17, 2008, among 2,710 adults (age 18+). Figures for age, sex, race education, region and household income were weighted to bring them into line with their actual proportions in the population. Propensity score weighting was also used to adjust for respondents’ propensity to answer online.


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