April 14, 2004
Director, Communications & Public Information
Lieutenant Governor, Gates Foundation Discuss Successes, Challenges in Providing Public Access Computers in Libraries
CAMBRIDGE - Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey joined Patty Stonesifer, president and co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and state library leaders and supporters at a Cambridge Public Library today to discuss support for libraries and free, public access to computers and the Internet for patrons.
Reverend Professor Peter J. Gomes, Harvard chaplain, spoke on behalf of the Americans for Libraries Council, a newly established group of business, civic, educational, library and philanthropic leaders that advocates for libraries at the national level.
The Cambridge Public Library system has offered patrons free access to computers and the Internet since 1994, making it one of the first in the country to do so. This public access helps bridge the digital divide in communities where many people, particularly minorities and those with lower income and education levels, do not have computers or Internet connectivity at home or work.
"Thank you to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other supporters for investing in libraries and citizens in Massachusetts," said Healey. "With the aid of organizations such as this, libraries across the commonwealth will continue to upgrade and expand their facilities to meet the growing technological and educational needs of their patrons."
Although Internet use has increased substantially in the United States, nearly half of all American households don't have computers or Internet access at home. Traditionally disadvantaged groups, including African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans and those with lower income and educational levels, remain among the least connected. While about half of Massachusetts households have access to computers or the Internet, nearly every public library in the state offers free Internet access to patrons.
By providing free access to computers and the Internet, public libraries play a major role in bridging the digital divide. In 1996, only 28 percent of public library systems offered public Internet access. Today, more than 95 percent of library buildings in the country offer this service. This benefit has especially reached certain socioeconomic groups that are less likely to have access at home or work. African Americans and Hispanics are twice as likely to use library computers as Asian Americans and whites. Families making less than $15,000 annually are two to three times more likely to rely on library computers than those earning more than $75,000.
"Massachusetts has been at the forefront in providing free, public access to the Internet in public libraries," said Stonesifer. "I applaud the state's leaders and residents for supporting libraries and encourage them to maintain this access in the years to come."
Despite the popularity and many benefits of this service, libraries nationwide are challenged to sustain this critical service. In keeping pace with ever-evolving technology, libraries often lack sufficient resources and technical support to upgrade computer hardware, software and Internet connections. Librarians and staff members also must seek continued technology training to assist patrons and troubleshoot equipment. Budget cuts nationwide have caused some libraries to cut operating hours, lay off staff members or close altogether.
In Massachusetts, state and local funds for libraries have declined with the downturn in the economy. Some libraries have been forced to reduce operating hours and cut back on services and materials. Libraries in 65 communities recently applied for "fiscal hardship" waivers of local funding requirements this year. In order to qualify for state aid for libraries, localities must provide a minimum level of funding for the system. Tight budgets and conflicting priorities have made this requirement difficult for many communities to meet.
"Libraries in Massachusetts face many challenges in continuing to provide public access computing and other services," said Robert Maier, director of the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners. "But we are committed to developing partnerships with private corporations, foundations and community leaders as well as state and local government officials to help libraries continue this important service."
Massachusetts has invested in library automation, public access computing and technology training for library staff since 1980. Most of the state's 370 public libraries are linked through 9 automated resource-sharing networks. Libraries shared more than 2.6 million items through these networks in 2003. Library staff also received 800 training sessions through six regional library systems. In 1987, Massachusetts became the first state to provide funding to offset the cost of library network communications. This network infrastructure and connectivity allowed Massachusetts libraries to be among the first to connect to the Internet in the early 1990s.
In February 2004, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation awarded the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners with a $70,560 grant to support the state's training programs for library staff. This grant follows a more than $2.1 million investment in 2002 to provide 660 computers for 129 library buildings in the state. The foundation also provided for the installation of the computers and training of 990 library staff. Nationally, the foundation's U.S. Library Program has committed $250 million and has installed more than 47,000 computers in almost 11,000 libraries in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
The Board of Library Commissioners (mass.gov/mblc) is the agency of state government with the statutory authority and responsibility to organize, develop, coordinate and improve library services throughout the Commonwealth. The Board advises municipalities and library trustees on the operation and maintenance of public libraries, including construction and renovation. It administers state and federal grant programs for libraries and promotes cooperation among all types of libraries through regional library systems and automated resource sharing. It also works to ensure that all residents of the Commonwealth, regardless of their geographic location, social or economic status, age, level of physical or intellectual ability or cultural background, have access to essential new electronic information technologies and significant electronic databases.