Gates Foundation to help libraries be better free 'net cafes
By David Chartier
December 18, 2008
Public libraries haven't been just about books for some time now, but they are finding it increasingly difficult to keep up with the costs of infrastructure, faster Internet access, and new computers. To help struggling libraries get on their 21st century feet, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation today announced a grant program of $6.9 million that will go toward launching a pilot broadband initiative in a handful of US states.
The seven states included in the Gates Foundation's pilot grant program include Arkansas, California, Kansas, Massachusetts, New York, Texas, and Virginia, and the money has been awarded to two separate organizations. $6.1 million goes to Connected Nation, a non-profit broadband Internet advocacy group that will help these states to gather and activate various public library leaders and officials who can support broadband Internet in each state's libraries.
The rest of the funds, a hair over $850,000, will go to the American Library Association's Office for Information Technology Policy (OITP), which will help state library agencies implement sustainable broadband strategies. The organization will also perform and distribute a series of case studies that demonstrate how other public libraries can successfully manage broadband services for their patrons.
A bull market in library usage
The Gates Foundation's grant comes at a crucial time when libraries across the US are reporting spikes in patron traffic due to the economic crisis. Students, the unemployed, and those without home Internet access are increasingly making use of the fact that local libraries double as free Internet cafes. In fact, a recent 2007-2008 study by the American Library Association (ALA) shows that 73 percent of public libraries are the only source of free, public Internet access in their respective communities. Despite this demand, however, only 38.9 percent of all libraries have a T1 (1.5Mbps) connection, and among those, 51.6 percent are urban libraries, 32.1 percent are rural.
These libraries are feeling the squeeze, too. Over 57 percent of libraries (up from 52 percent in the ALA's 2006-2007 study) report that their connectivity is too slow some or all of the time, and over 82 percent report that they don't have enough workstations some or all of the time. Because of these and other constraints, over 90 percent of libraries impose time limits on public Internet workstations, with 45.7 percent using a 60-minute limit, and 35.2 percent cutting users off at just 30 minutes; hardly enough time to finish registering at Monster.com or complete that web-based art history exam.
The Gates Foundation picked the seven states for this pilot program based on a variety of factors such as their high concentrations of public libraries with Internet speeds below 1.5Mbps and public policy support to improve public library broadband access. The foundation has already invested $325 million in grants and other support for computers and staff training in libraries across all 50 US states. If this pilot grant program goes well with these first seven candidates, the Gates Foundation may expand its support to a limited number of other states.