The looming infrastructure plateau?
First Monday

The looming infrastructure
plateau? Space, funding, connection speed, and the ability of public libraries to meet the demand for free Internet access by Charles R. McClure, Paul T. Jaeger, and John Carlo Bertot



Abstract
While virtually all public libraries provide free Internet access to patrons, libraries seem to be reaching a plateau in their ability to meet demands for Internet access. Based on the findings of Public Libraries and the Internet surveys, the average number of public access workstations and the average connection speeds of Internet access in public libraries have stayed the same or slightly decreased in recent years. Further, more than half of libraries do not have sufficient connection speeds to meet patron demand, while staff, space, cost, and technical/telecommunications infrastructure issues prevent a great number of libraries from increasing the number of workstations or the connection speed in the library. Moreover, the U.S. federal telecommunications and broadband policies require revision and updating. These findings raise serious questions about the ability of public libraries to continue to meet patron needs for Internet access. As a result of early public library commitment to ensuring public Internet access, patrons rely heavily on public libraries to meet their Internet needs. However, as demands for library computers and connection speeds continue to grow, there may be a drop in the quality of Internet services that public libraries are able to provide their patrons. It would also challenge the fundamental role of the contemporary public library in the community, as libraries have become so inextricably linked to the provision of Internet access. In addition, the survey data identify a range of implications regarding the policy environment in which public libraries offer their public access Internet services.

Contents

Introduction: The looming infrastructure plateau?
Data indicating an infrastructure plateau
Implications of the infrastructure plateau
Policy implications of the infrastructure plateau
Conclusikons

 


 

Introduction: The looming infrastructure plateau?

Beginning in the early 1990s, the availability of free public Internet access in public libraries began to increase steadily. The early embrace of providing free public Internet access resulted in public libraries evolving into centers of Internet access in society, with patrons, communities, and governments all relying on the availability of Internet access (Bertot, et al., 2006a, 2006b; Jaeger and Fleischmann, 2007; Jaeger, et al., 2007). The Public Libraries and the Internet, conducted since 1994, document the growth of Internet access in public libraries. A detailed description of the history of the study is available on the Information Institute Web site at http://www.ii.fsu.edu/plinternet.

The Public Libraries and the Internet studies survey public libraries around the United States based on three library demographics — metropolitan status (roughly equating to their designation of urban, suburban, or rural libraries), poverty level of their service population (as derived through census data), and state in which they resided. The 2007 study sampled 6,979 public libraries, and received a total of 4,027 responses for a 57.7 percent response rate. Unless otherwise noted, the data in this article are from the 2007Public Libraries and the Internet study.

Data in the 2007 Public Libraries and the Internet study seem to indicate that free public Internet access continues to build in public libraries (Bertot, et al., 2007). Key findings include:

  • 99.7% of public library branches are connected to the Internet;
  • 99.1% of public library branches offer public Internet access;
  • 54.2% of public library branches offer wireless Internet access, a dramatic increase from 36.7% in 2006;
  • 100% of urban library branches are connected to the Internet; and,
  • Public library branches have an average of 10.7 public access workstations, with rural libraries having an average of 7.1 workstations and high poverty libraries — which are usually associated with large urban public library systems — having 25.4 workstations.

These numbers indicate a high level of success by public libraries in providing Internet access to their communities. In the 2007 study, however, a new trend appears to be emerging: an infrastructure plateau that ultimately limits the ability of libraries to meet the Internet access needs of patrons.

The 2007 survey asked a range of questions that assessed the ability of public library infrastructure to provide public access Internet and computing services. The answers to a number of these questions indicate that public libraries may have reached a plateau along key infrastructure measures of Internet workstations and bandwidth. In contrast to the long–term trend of increases, several important data points have held steady or decreased:

  • In 2007, 32.9% of connected public library branches have connection speeds of 769kbps–1.5mbps, down slightly from 34.4% in 2006;
  • In 2007, 29.2% have connection speeds of greater than 1.5mbps compared to 28.9% in 2006; and,
  • Bandwidth speed has decreased slightly since last year, with 62.1% of public library branches having connection speeds of greater than 769kbps in 2007 compared to 63.3% in 2006.
  • The average number of public access Internet workstations is 10.7, a number that has not changed significantly since 2002 (2002: 10.8; 2004: 10.4; 2006: 10.7).

The average number of workstations has remained steady for four survey cycles. This issue raises questions about the ability of public libraries to meet patron needs for Internet access. If considerations of space, cost, staff, and telecommunications availability are creating a level of access beyond which libraries cannot collectively reach, then it appears that libraries may have reached an infrastructure plateau.

This article explores the data that indicate the looming infrastructure plateau and its implications for public libraries in terms of Internet access provision and public policy. As a result of their early commitment to ensuring public Internet access, patrons rely heavily on public libraries to meet their Internet needs. However, as demands for library computers and connection speeds continue to grow, there may be a drop in quality of Internet services that public libraries are able to provide their patrons. It would also raise serious questions about the fundamental role of the contemporary public library in the community, as libraries have become so inextricably linked to the provision of Internet access.

 

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Data indicating an infrastructure plateau

The concept of an infrastructure plateau derives from data related to a number of different factors — physical space, number of workstations, funding, telecommunications infrastructure, speed of connectivity — reaching a point where they are static, decreasing, or pointing toward a future decrease. A number of different questions in the 2007 Public Libraries and the Internet study point toward the potential for public libraries reaching capacity in their provision of free public Internet access.

 

Figure 1: Average number of public library public access Internet workstations in 2006 and 2007.
 20062007
Metropolitan status  
Urban17.918.3
Suburban12.612.7
Rural7.17.1
Poverty level  
Low10.09.9
Medium13.314.3
High26.025.4
Overall10.710.7

 

Figure 1 shows the most basic indicator of an infrastructure plateau. In 2007, the average number of workstations was 10.7. This number has been nearly static for five years, as the average number of workstations was 10.8 in 2002, 10.4 in 2004, and 10.7 in 2006. The lack of increases from 2006 is very consistent across types of libraries. The majority of types of libraries by poverty level and metropolitan status had decreases or held steady in the number of workstations, with only medium poverty level libraries registering an increase of 1.0 or more from 2006 to 2007.

 

Figure 2: Sufficiency of public access Internet workstations.
  
There are consistently fewer public Internet workstations than patrons who wish to use them throughout a typical day.18.7%
There are fewer public Internet workstations than patrons who wish to use them at different times throughout a typical day.58.8%
There are always sufficient public Internet workstations available for patrons who wish to use them during a typical day.21.9%

 

Another potential indicator of a plateau is that only 21.9 percent of libraries can always meet demand for public Internet access, as shown in Figure 2. The vast majority of libraries have insufficient workstations to meet patron demand part (58.8 percent) or all of the day (18.7 percent). Yet, the number of workstations in libraries, as seen in Figure 1, remains steady. As detailed below, there are a range of reasons libraries identified for not adding workstations to meet patron demand and needs.

 

Figure 3: Public library public access Internet workstations addition schedule.
Key: * insufficient data to report
  
The library plans to add workstations within the next year.17.2%
The library is considering adding more workstations or laptops within the next year, but does not know how many at this time.21.7%
The library has no plans to add workstations within the next year.57.8%
The library has plans to reduce the number of workstations.*

 

While the number of workstations is holding steady and is generally insufficient, few libraries are planning to add workstations with certainty. In Figure 3, only 17.2 percent of libraries are definitely adding workstations, while a further 21.7 percent are considering doing so. The majority of libraries, however, are not planning to add workstations. The number of libraries not adding workstations is another indication that the average number of workstations will remain static.

 

Figure 4: Public library public access Internet workstations replacement and upgrade schedules.
Workstation replacement schedule 
The library plans to replace workstations within the next year.25.0%
The library plans to replace some workstations within the next year, but does not know how many at this time.25.1%
The library has no plans to replace workstations within the next year.46.3%
Workstation upgrade schedule 
The library plans to upgrade workstations within the next year.7.1%
The library plans to upgrade some workstations within the next year, but does not know how many at this time.21.8%
The library has no plans to upgrade workstations within the next year.65.0%

 

As can be seen in Figure 4, more libraries are planning to (25.0 percent) or considering (25.1 percent) replacing workstations than adding new ones. Unlike adding workstations, about half (50.1 percent) the responding libraries indicate that they are considering replacing workstations. And while replacing workstations helps to provide more up–to–date technology for patrons to use, it does not allow more patrons to have access to workstations. Upgrading existing workstations would offer the same benefits, but few libraries (7.1 percent) are definitely planning to upgrade any workstations.

 

Figure 5: Factors influencing replacement of public access Internet workstations.
Note: Does not total to 100%, as respondents could select more than one option.
  
Cost factors84.1%
Maintenance, upgrade, and general upkeep37.8%
Availability of staff28.1%
Other13.2%

 

Figure 5 indicates that the overwhelming reason for decisions not to replace workstations is cost (84.1 percent), followed by maintenance, upgrade, and general upkeep (37.8 percent); availability of staff (28.1 percent); and, other (13.2 percent).

 

Figure 6: Factors influencing addition of public access Internet workstations in 2006 and 2007.
Notes: Does not total to 100%, as respondents could select more than one option.
* Not asked on the 2006 survey.
Factors influencing workstation addition decisions20062007
Space limitations79.9%76.1%
Cost factors72.6%72.6%
Maintenance, upgrade, and general upkeep38.8%26.3%
Staff time19.5%16.1%
Inadequate bandwidth to support additional workstations8.8%13.0%
Availability of electrical outlets, cabling, or other infrastructure*31.2%
The current number of workstations meets the needs of our patrons20.7%13.9%
Other4.5%2.6%

 

Figure 6 offers greater insight into the potential reasons for the infrastructure plateau. Between 2006 and 2007, space limitations and cost factors held steady as the predominant reasons that prevented libraries from adding workstation capacity. Technical and telecommunications infrastructure problems were also significant reasons for the inability of libraries to increase workstation capacities. Also telling is the fact that the number of libraries responding that “the current number of workstations meets the needs of our patrons” dropped from 20.7 percent in 2006 to 13.9 percent in 2007, yet as Figures 3 and 4 reveal, few libraries are adding or replacing workstations to meet patron needs.

 

Figure 7: Public access wireless Internet connectivity in public library outlets in 2006 and 2007.
Availability of public access wireless Internet services20062007
Currently available.36.7%54.2%
Not currently available, but there are plans to make it available within the next year.38.3%17.4%
Not currently available and no plans to make it available within the next year.23.1%26.4%

 

One area in which there does not seem to be a plateau is wireless access. In fact, the number of libraries offering public wireless access jumped from 36.7 percent in 2006 to 54.2 percent in 2007, as can be seen in Figure 7. This success with wireless, however, also may reinforce the issues underlying the overall infrastructure plateau. Libraries may be turning to wireless access not only to meet the needs of patrons who wish to bring their own computer to the library, but also because the libraries cannot afford to add workstations or have no space in which to put additional workstations. While wireless access may be helpful to patrons who own their own laptops, it does not help the patrons who do not have their own computers. Further, an increase in overall wireless use may also have the unintended consequence of reducing bandwidth and quality of access from other public access workstations in the library. Indeed, as indicated in Figure 11 below, nearly 50 percent of public libraries that offer wireless access do so sharing the same bandwidth as the public access workstations.

 

Figure 8: Public library outlet maximum speed of public access Internet services in 2006 and 2007.Key: * Insufficient data to report
Maximum speed20062007
Less than 56kbps2.1%*
56kbps — 128kbps9.8%6.6%
129kbps — 256kbps8.2%6.2%
257kbps — 768kbps11.7%9.4%
769kbps — 1.5mbps34.4%32.9%
Greater than 1.5mbps28.9%29.2%
Don’t know4.9%12.9%

 

As Figure 8 indicates, there have been minor increases in the number of libraries with connection speeds greater than 769kbps. In 2007, 29.2 percent of libraries had connection speeds of greater than 1.5mbps compared to 28.9 percent in 2006. However, in that same time period, the number of libraries with connection speeds between 769kbps–1.5mbps and greater than 769kbps actually decreased slightly. In 2007, 32.9 percent of libraries had connection speeds of 769kbps–1.5mbps, down slightly from 34.4 percent in 2006. In 2007, 62.1 percent of libraries had connection speeds of greater than 769kbps compared to 63.3 percent in 2006. Like many other factors related to providing free public library Internet access, connection speed seems to be virtually static.

Figure 9: Average public library bandwidth by state

Figure 9: Average public library bandwidth by state.

Reflecting the data in Figure 8, the levels of average public library bandwidth by state are presented in Figure 9. This geographic information system (GIS)–based analysis of the data related to public library connection speeds demonstrates that only three states — Arizona, Connecticut, and Maryland — provide patrons with an average of more than a T1 connection speed. Two states — Iowa and Wyoming — offer patrons an average connection speed below 769kbps.

 

Figure 10: Public library outlet public access Internet connection adequacy by metropolitan status and poverty.
Adequacy of public access Internet connection 
The connection speed is insufficient to meet patron needs.15.9%
The connection speed is sufficient to meet patron needs at some times.36.4%
The connection speed is sufficient to meet patron needs at all times.43.6%
Don’t know.1.1%

 

Not surprisingly, given the data in Figure 8 and 9, fewer than half the responding libraries (43.6 percent) feel the connection speed is sufficient to meet patron needs at all times, as is shown in Figure 10. As the content and services on the Internet, particularly social networking and other Web 2.0 technologies as well as digital media content, become more complicated and require more bandwidth, the connection speeds that patrons require from public library Internet access will continue to increase. If libraries do not begin to increase connection speeds and add, replace, or upgrade workstations, the number of libraries able to say that their “connection speed is sufficient to meet patron needs at all times” or that “there are always sufficient public Internet workstations available for patrons who wish to use them during a typical day” will likely decline in the near future.

 

Figure 11: Public library shared wireless–workstation bandwidth.
Shared bandwidth 
Yes, both the wireless connection and public access workstations share the same bandwidth/connection.49.7%
No, the wireless connection is separate from the public access workstation bandwidth/connection.16.7%
Don’t know.10.1%

 

A large part of the adequacy of connection speed is the number of computers drawing upon that connection. As can be seen in Figure 11, the public Internet workstations share bandwidth or connections with wireless access at nearly half of all libraries (49.7 percent). Such a situation means that the workstations and wireless computers are simultaneously drawing on the same connectivity, taxing the bandwidth available and, in likelihood, resulting in slower connections for both workstation and wireless users. A separate wireless connection from the one used by public access workstations was reported as being in use in only 16.7 percent of libraries. While clearly preferable from a service standpoint, separate connections for workstations and wireless are an additional cost that many libraries cannot afford.

 

Figure 12: Possibility of increasing adequacy of public library outlet public access Internet connection.
Increasing adequacy of public access Internet connectionOverall
There is no interest in increasing the connection speed.17.6%
The connection speed is already at the maximum level available.16.6%
There is interest in increasing the branch’s bandwidth, but the library cannot currently afford to.18.1%
There are plans in place to increase the bandwidth within the next year.13.6%
It is possible to increase the speed; however, there are no plans in place to increase the bandwidth within the next year.19.3%
There is interest but the branch lacks the technical knowledge to increase the bandwidth in the library.1.5%
Other6.9%

 

There are a number of reasons why the Internet connection speeds in a library may be remaining static. Figure 12 catalogs the range of reasons. The most frequent answer was that there were no plans to increase the speed even though it would be possible to do so (19.3 percent), while 17.6 percent of libraries have no interest in increasing the speed. Among the remaining libraries, common barriers were an inability to afford an increased connection speed (18.1 percent), the connection speed already being at the maximum speed available (16.6 percent), and lack of sufficient technical knowledge among staff member (1.5 percent). These findings further indicate that cost, availability, and staff are key factors in the potential infrastructure plateau.

 

Figure 13: Factors affecting public library outlet’s ability to provide public access Internet connection.
Note: Does not total to 100%, as respondents could select more than one option.
Factors affecting connection 
There is no space for workstations and/or necessary equipment.48.2%
The library building cannot support the necessary infrastructure (e.g., power, cabling, other).10.9%
The library cannot afford the necessary equipment.24.7%
The library does not have access to adequate telecommunications services.27.1%
The library cannot afford the recurring telecommunications costs.14.3%
The library does not have the staff necessary to install, maintain, and/or upgrade the necessary technology.18.7%
The library does not control its access to Internet services.11.3%
There is no interest among library staff or management in connecting the library to the Internet.
There is no interest within the local community in connecting the library to the Internet.3.2%
Other29.3%

 

Figure 13 focuses on the small number of libraries that still do not provide free public library Internet access. Almost half of the libraries that do not provide Internet access (48.2 percent) cited a lack of space for workstations and other necessary equipment as the primary factor affecting their ability to provide access, while another 10.9 percent reported that the building could not support the necessary infrastructure. Lack of access to telecommunications services (27.1 percent) was the second most frequently cited reason. Lack of funding for telecommunications costs (14.3 percent) or for staffing (18.7 percent) were also problems for a number of libraries. The reasons that the small number of libraries that do not provide free public library Internet access echo the barriers that many of the libraries providing access face in trying to increase the services they provide — cost, telecommunications infrastructure, staffing, and physical space. The roots of the infrastructure plateau may be reflected in the barriers to access still encountered by libraries that have yet to make the Internet available.

 

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Implications of the infrastructure plateau

As the results of 2007 Public Libraries and the Internet survey evidence, the average number of public access workstations and the average connection speeds of Internet access in public libraries have stayed the same or slightly decreased in recent years. Further, more than half of public libraries do not have sufficient connection speeds to consistently meet patron demand. Staff, physical space, cost, and technical/telecommunications infrastructure issues prevent a substantial number of libraries from increasing the number of workstations or the connection speed in the library. Together, these and other data points discussed above identify the beginning of an infrastructure plateau among public libraries in their ability to provide free public Internet access. After 15 years of continually improving and expanding their Internet offerings, public libraries may simply have reached the point beyond which they can no longer provide increased levels of access.

Essentially, libraries reported that they face a range of challenges that are best summarized as follows:

  • Physical space: Many library buildings are out of space and cannot support more workstations, are insufficiently wired to support more cable drops, and are insufficiently wired for the power requirements of workstations and patron–provided laptops.
  • Cost: Funding workstation replacements, upgrades, bandwidth enhancements, and a range of other services related to public Internet access and computing was a major issue for many libraries.
  • Staff: Staff skills and time were factors in library decisions to upgrade their public access infrastructure, as the lack of a dedicated IT staff proved a particular difficulty for many public libraries.

Together, these data point to what may be a national trend. The findings of recent Public Libraries and the Internet studies indicate the possibility of libraries being unable to continue their adoption of new technologies required by an ever–demanding Internet (Bertot, et al., 2005; Jaeger, et al., 2007; Jaeger, et al., 2006). In short, public libraries may have reached public access infrastructure capacity given their current buildings, budgets, and staff.

One question raised by these findings is whether the emphasis of the Library Services Technology Act (LSTA), the federal population–based funding program passed through states, has ultimately proven too narrow to ensure technology access. While older versions of the Act emphasized construction, the current version of the LSTA focuses on technology. Since technology requires physical placement and other building requirements (e.g., power, cabling), it is not surprising that physical space and building capabilities would become an issue as libraries incorporated more Internet–related technologies. However, the LSTA’s focus of federal monies for libraries on technology has come without considering support issues for the technologies — not only physical space to house the technology, but also staff and training to support the technology and infrastructure in the buildings in the form of wiring, outlets, and cabling to make the technology work. As the findings of the 2007 study demonstrate, having the technology is clearly not enough to ensure sufficient access to the Internet in public libraries to meet the expectations of patrons, communities, and governments.

The 2007 survey also found that nearly 75 percent of the public libraries responding reported that in their communities the public library is the only source for free public access to the Internet. If these public libraries are at a plateau and cannot easily or quickly increase capacity for public access and demand continues to increase, a number of local residents in these communities may find themselves with reduced or no free public access to the Internet. Such a situation could have significant impacts on the success with which residents can, for example, apply for a job online, participate in E–government services, seek emergency assistance in times of disasters, obtain health information, communicate electronically with friends and family, etc. Such developments could have negative impacts on local economies and individual quality of life issues.

A key issue woven through the survey’s findings — and tied to the ability of libraries to overcome the barriers associated with the infrastructure plateau — is that, while public libraries provide a substantial amount of public access Internet and computing service, the overall physical infrastructure they are able to provide may be lacking in quality. From the data discussed above, consider the following issues:

  • Bandwidth has essentially remained unchanged since the 2006 survey; yet, 54 percent of libraries will not be increasing their bandwidth for a range of reasons — affordability, ability, or availability.
  • More than half of libraries (52 percent) reported that their connectivity speed is insufficient some or all of the time, a 6 percent increase from 2006.
  • Nearly 80 percent of libraries reported that they have insufficient workstations some or all of the day.
  • Just below 50 percent of public libraries report that their wireless connections share the same bandwidth as their public access workstations.

Together, these data point to a public library public access infrastructure that is increasingly unable to keep up with the demands of the Web 2.0 environment — an environment that requires increasingly sophisticated workstations, substantial bandwidth, and a range of resources that libraries are beginning to indicate that they may not be able to support.

This is the context of public library public access service provision. As the data demonstrate, public libraries face a range of challenges as they implement, maintain, and enhance their technology–based services and resources. The examination of the library public access technology infrastructure is incomplete, however, without also discussing the policy environment in which public libraries offer their public access services, as the policy environment can impact greatly the ability of public libraries to offer high–quality public access services.

 

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Policy implications of the infrastructure plateau

The problems of infrastructure plateau in many ways derive from public policy decisions that affect public libraries. Many policy decisions related to technology and telecommunications directly shape how libraries can fund and provide Internet access. Further, government agencies actually rely on public libraries to ensure that citizens can access e–government Web sites and receive help using them (Bertot, et al., 2006a, 2006b). However, public libraries rarely have involvement in the policy–making process, leaving them to deal with the impacts of the decisions that are made without their input. Moreover, such policies are often made with little regard for the nature of libraries or the needs of library patrons.

Background

Many of the policy–related issues that are currently causing difficulties for public libraries were initially identified as problems in the early–to–mid–1990s, when libraries were first actively embracing providing free public Internet access. As the Internet was becoming a key part of everyday life, the lack of understanding of the roles of public libraries by policy–makers and the lack attention paid by governments to the needs of libraries in providing Internet access were already being observed (McClure, 1994, 1995; McClure, et al., 1996). In 1996, the U.S. government was already aware of the vital role of libraries in ensuring universal access to the Internet (McClure, et al., 1996). However, policy developments in the areas of technology and telecommunications have yet to properly account for or support public libraries in their role of guarantor of equal access to the Internet.

The current context

There is widespread recognition of the importance of broadband deployment. As the Chair of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Kevin Martin notes (Federal Communications Commission, 2006):

Broadband technology is a key driver of economic growth. The ability to share large amounts of information at ever–greater speeds increases productivity, facilitates commerce, and drives innovation. Broadband is changing how we communicate with each other, how and where we work, how we educate our children, and how we entertain ourselves. Broadband is particularly critical in rural areas, where advanced communications can shrink the distances that isolate remote communities.

Nonetheless, the U.S. Congress, Bush Administration, FCC, Internet service providers (ISP), and others have competing views on how best to update and reauthorize U.S. telecommunications policy in general and deployment of broadband in particular.

As Figures 14 demonstrates, residents of the U.S. have access to relatively slow bandwidth speeds and pay higher prices for that bandwidth than users in a number of other countries. Although there are numerous proposed pieces of legislation before the Congress (as of Fall 2007) there is no comprehensive approach being developed to revise and update the Telecommunications Act of 1996 nor is there a comprehensive plan to improve broadband access, use, and deployment.

The telecommunications and broadband policy vacuum at the Federal level has a number of significant implications for the public library community:

  • Costs are often excessive for public libraries to upgrade to higher bandwidth speeds;
  • Public libraries and other public sector organizations receive no policy support for their service in the provision of public access computing;
  • Federal, state, and local governments continue to refer users who need E–government services to public libraries increasing demand for broadband and public access.

Finally, Federal, state, and local governments have limited understanding of what constitutes “sufficient” and “high–quality” bandwidth for public libraries to meet the needs of various stakeholder groups.

Figure 14: Comparative bandwidth speeds and prices

Figure 14: Comparative bandwidth speeds and prices (data from Belson, 2007).

Unintended policy consequences

The lack of inclusion of libraries by policy–makers in the policy discussions can have dramatic consequences for libraries. For example, when the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) tied E–rate funding to the use of filters in libraries, many libraries opted to not continue to apply for E–rate funds to avoid limiting the services they could provide (Jaeger, et al., 2004; Jaeger, et al., 2005). By not fully comprehending how important providing equal access was to the mission of libraries, policy–makers excluded many libraries from a funding source that had provided more than US$250 million for Internet–related expenses in public libraries (Jaeger, et al., 2005). As a result, CIPA and its filtering requirements for E–rate funds cause the public libraries in poorer regions of the country to be more likely to have filtered Internet access and contribute to a situation where library patrons in different regions of the country have very different levels of Internet access at their libraries (Jaeger, et al., 2007).

To avoid problems like those caused by CIPA and to help stem the apparent developing infrastructure plateau, policymakers and those involved in the development of policies need to consider public libraries in the development of national polices related to the Internet and telecommunications. Not only do public libraries need to be actively involved in such discussions and decisions, they need to be a central part of any developed national broadband policy. The infrastructure plateau demonstrates the need for the federal government to develop a comprehensive national broadband policy to ensure that public libraries have access to Internet connections capable of supporting current service demands. Moreover, the policy needs to be flexible and allow migration and enhancements as demand increases. While the findings from this study are direct indicators of the state of affording and providing broadband access in public libraries, these data demonstrate many problems in guaranteeing universal access to broadband that are not likely unique to libraries.

Public library involvement in the policy process

One current legislative effort to encourage affordable universal broadband access in the United States, a bill known as the Community Broadband Act of 2007 (CBA), focuses on encouraging towns and cities to offer broadband access to residents (Benton Foundation, 2007). The CBA does not consider the importance of public libraries in guaranteeing public access to the Internet, however. As the 2007 Public Libraries and the Internet study found, public libraries are the only provider of free public Internet access in nearly 75 percent of communities. However, the public library, as the main guarantor of public Internet access, is not a factor in the CBA of 2007 nor in the various other telecommunications and broadband proposals under consideration in the Fall of 2007.

Given the study’s findings, and the lack of mention of libraries in developing telecommunications policy developments, public libraries need to develop a proactive approach to policy involvement at the federal, state, and local levels. Without active involvement, the voices of libraries and their patrons will be detrimentally absent in major policymaking decisions such as broadband access and deployment. The provision of free public Internet access is too vital to the mission of public libraries and what they contribute to society for libraries to not demand a role in policies that shape the degree to which libraries do or do not remain at a technology infrastructure plateau.

Government and community acknowledgment of public library roles in the networked environment

A major concern for public libraries in terms of the infrastructure plateau they face is the apparent lack of government and community support for public library service provision in the networked environment. For example, government agencies are quick to recommend to their clients that they use the public library resources to engage in E–government services:

  • Recovery Times is a publication by FEMA. The reference to a public library in this particular issue is on page two on the left hand side, “If you do not have access to the Internet, ask a friend or family member or visit a public library to use a computer free of charge.” http://www.fema.gov/pdf/rt/rt_1609_120605.pdf (last accessed 16 October 2007).
  • The Federal Code of Regulation from the Department of Labor (Title 20, Volume 3, Part 655, Subpart H, Sec. 655.720) states that in the filing and processing of labor condition applications must be done online, unless documentation can be provided that Internet access is not available through the employer and, “there is no publicly available Internet access, at public libraries or elsewhere, within a reasonable distance of the employer” http://a257.g.akamaitech.net/7/257/2422/10apr20061500/edocket.access.gpo.gov/cfr_2006/aprqtr/pdf/20cfr655.720.pdf (last accessed 16 October 2007).
  • The first step in the 10 Steps to Help You Fill Your Grocery Bag Through the Food Stamp Program is the use of the Internet Tool. Stated under the Internet Tool is “your local library usually has computers you can use” http://www.fns.usda.gov/fsp/applicant_recipients/10steps.pdf (last accessed 16 October 2007).
  • The Florida Department of Environmental Protection released a memo involving the use of the People First System for the posting of job vacancies which states “Since this system is Internet based, employees can apply for vacancies from any computer, such as a home computer, public library computer, or computers at the Agency for Workforce’s Workforce Centers.” http://www.dep.state.fl.us/admin/forms/Personnel_Forms/DEP_54-804.doc (last accessed 16 October 2007).

There are other examples, but the above clearly indicate the reliance of federal and state government agencies on the public access computer and Internet access infrastructure in public libraries for the provision of and access to E–government services. Unstated in these examples and suggested use of the public library resources is the effort in which libraries must engage to support the provision of E–government services to patrons — it is not merely making available workstations and an Internet connection.

Indeed, public libraries developed and continue to develop a range of resources and services in order to meet patron demand for mandated E–government service use. For example, an individual cannot make an appointment directly with an immigration counselor, but must access the infopass system (http://infopass.uscis.gov/) in order to do so. To assist patrons with these services and service requirements, many public libraries developed a range of tools and information resources that take time to develop and maintain. In some cases, public libraries hired staff specifically to help patrons with E–government services. For example:

Many other public libraries have developed similar resources, offer support services, and devote staff time to assisting patrons with their E–government needs.

 

++++++++++

Conclusions

The findings discussed in this article raise several questions about the long–term ability of public libraries to meet patron needs for Internet access. As a result of their early commitment to ensuring public Internet access, patrons, communities, and governments rely heavily on public libraries to meet their Internet needs (Bertot, et al., 2006a, 2006b; Jaeger and Fleischmann, 2007; Jaeger, et al., 2007). However, as demands for library computers and connection speeds continue to grow, there may be a drop in quality of Internet services that public libraries are able to provide their patrons (Bertot and McClure, 2007). The infrastructure plateau suggested in this article could be an indication of widespread problems among libraries with keeping pace with the evolution of the Internet. With many patrons relying on the public library for their Internet access, a diminishing quality of access would result for users overall and especially for those with no other means of having Internet access. At worst, patrons of public libraries might only be able to access and use some of information and content available online — and then with significantly limited bandwidth.

Inadequate Internet access would also challenge the fundamental role of the contemporary public library in the community, as libraries have become so inextricably linked to the provision of Internet access. Due to their commitment to ensure access not only to the Internet in general, but to socially beneficial online content like E–government and emergency information, Internet access has become part of the social value of public libraries to society and simultaneously has become a core value of librarianship (Jaeger and Fleischmann, 2007). The infrastructure plateau, if it were to become a widespread phenomenon among public libraries, would threaten to alter these social roles that public libraries have cultivated over the past 15 years.

To ensure that an infrastructure plateau does not limit the ability of public libraries to meet the Internet access needs and expectations of patrons, communities, and governments, public libraries must enhance their ability to increase their capacity to provide Internet access. Public libraries, library cooperatives, regional library networks, state library agencies, and professional organizations need to ensure that that policies related to the Internet and telecommunications are developed to promote the role of libraries in providing Internet access. Further, libraries must better use the benefits they provide through free public Internet access to lobby for sufficient funding to continue to provide this access. Drawing attention to the infrastructure plateau and its potential impacts on public library Internet access will serve to focus efforts of public libraries in securing a voice in the policymaking process and articulating the need for sufficient technology funding to meet the needs of patrons, communities, and governments. The burden does not rest solely with the library community. If governments and communities intend to rely on public libraries as providers of public access services, then the responsibility to ensure quality and adequate infrastructure availability also falls on them. Neither governments, nor communities, nor the library community can resolve the plateau issue alone; working together, however, can yield a range of policy, strategic, and tactical solutions that benefit libraries, communities, governments, and most importantly, the individuals who rely on library public access services and resources. End of article

 

About the authors

Charles R. McClure (cmcclure [at] fsu [dot] edu) is Professor and Director, Information Use Management and Policy Institute, College of Information, Florida State University; Paul T. Jaeger (pjaeger [at] umd [dot] edu) is Assistant Professor and Director, Center for Information Policy and Electronic Government, College of Information Studies, University of Maryland; and, John Carlo Bertot (jbertot [at] fsu [dot] edu) is Professor and Associate Director, Information Use Management and Policy Institute, College of Information, Florida State University.

 

Acknowledgements

The authors acknowledge the assistance of Denise Davis and Larra Clark of the Office of Research and Statistics of the American Library Association in the development of this study. The authors also wish to acknowledge the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the American Library Association for the research reported here. And finally, the authors acknowledge and greatly appreciate the participation by the many librarians who completed the surveys — without which there would have been no study.

 

References

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Editorial history

Paper received 16 October 2007; accepted 20 November 2007.


Copyright © 2007, First Monday.

Copyright © 2007, John Carlo Bertot, Paul T. Jaeger, and Charles R. McClure, All rights reserved.

The looming infrastructure plateau? Space, funding, connection speed, and the ability of public libraries to meet the demand for free Internet access by Charles R. McClure, Paul T. Jaeger, and John Carlo Bertot.

First Monday, Volume 12 Number 12 - 3 December 2007
http://journals.uic.edu/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/2017/1907





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