Wi-Fi, Water, Rest, Knowledge: Libraries in the digital age

Last year, in Ferguson, Missouri following the shooting of Michael Brown and subsequent Grand Jury investigation of Officer Darren Wilson, the Ferguson Memorial Library offered its community respite from the turmoil outside. What was an extraordinary act by the librarian in Ferguson — and community members who came out to support him — is part of the ordinary role libraries are playing in communities throughout the country.

The American Library Association just released the results of its 2015 Digital Inclusion Survey, capping off two decades of research on public libraries and the internet and the expanded roles libraries are playing in their communities. The findings show how critical libraries are for connecting people to the internet, but also, how and what patrons are doing with that access.

  • 76 percent of libraries assist patrons in using online government programs and services;
  • The vast majority of libraries provide programs that support people in applying for jobs (73 percent), access and using online job opportunity resources (68 percent) and using online business information resources (48 percent);
  • A significant majority of libraries host social connection events for adults (61 percent) and teens (60 percent) such as book discussion groups or gaming programs;
  • 45 percent of libraries provide early-learning technologies for pre-K children; and
  • More than one-third of all libraries provide literacy, GED prep, STEAM and afterschool programs.

For the over 120,000 U.S. libraries, Wi-Fi is essential: 99 percent of libraries offer Wi-Fi and rely on it to add to library capacity, serve community members and support the mobility of services that libraries offer.

First, access to Wi-Fi doubles or triples their public internet capacity — where internet access in libraries used to be limited by the number of desktops available, mobile devices and Wi-Fi-only devices (either library provided or brought in by patrons) reduce the time people have to wait to use computers. Libraries oftentimes have the best (or only) access point in a community. This is a critical component in helping to bridge the digital divide as African American and Latino Internet users are more likely to use Wi-Fi in public places like libraries than other means to connect to the Internet.

Whether it’s supporting mobile teaching labs for libraries that don’t have the capacity or letting libraries deliver the teaching and courses listed above out into the community, Wi-Fi in libraries helps staff and patrons be nimble and bring resources where they’re needed. Wi-Fi lets libraries add capacity in the form of pop-up or temporary services, like a tax filing outpost in the busy month of April. And Wi-Fi is changing what people are able to do at the library, from using wireless printers or visiting outposts for e-government services like drivers licenses to using mobile devices for e-health and insurance services.

Everyone expects to have Wi-Fi in their library. And the American Library Association has translated that expectation into its advocacy work, helping policymakers AND members of the library community understand what goes in to providing sufficient and capable Wi-Fi.

How do you use Wi-Fi in your library? Tell us at www.saveourwifi.org/libraries