Libraries have always been synonymous with free books, but it seems they’re also becoming a hub for those looking for free Internet access. The Pew Research Center found 77 percent of Americans without Internet access depend on Libraries to get online. Has sustaining Internet access at libraries become just as important as stocking them with books?

The Internet is a Necessity

There’s no arguing the impact books have on education. They’re magnificent tools for learning, but these days you can download most of them online. However, it turns out print editions are still preferred over eBooks by the general population.

On the other hand, the Internet is required for many aspects of daily life. People need Internet access to perform tasks like applying to jobs, printing resumes, communicating with family and friends, and performing duties for work. In fact, over 55 percent of retail stores require applicants to fill out applications online. And if you aren’t of working age yet, you’re probably in school and 96 percent of teachers say they assign homework that requires Internet access.

According to public surveys, 80 percent of Americans believe providing books to the community is a very important function of libraries, while 77 percent feel free Internet access in libraries also qualifies as very important. Regardless, 95 percent feel that providing Internet holds at least some significance.

Access is Widespread, But Still Limited

Across the nation, 99 percent of public libraries now offer Internet access to their communities. That may seem like a high number, but it only covers public libraries where access is available on at least one station, not necessarily on enough to fulfill community needs.

Over 65 percent of those libraries report not having enough workstations available to meet patrons’ needs during the day. This problem continues to surge as libraries report a 60 percent rise public Internet consumption.

Some areas are working on increasing access. In New York, for example, libraries are experimenting with the idea of loaning out high-speed hotspots to patrons. Rather than checking out a book, you’ll take home a Wi-Fi device with an unlimited data plan. In places like New York, where an estimated 55 percent of library Internet users do not have broadband access at home, this could help them acquire greater digital literacy.

The government is also stepping up efforts to promote an upturn in Internet access. The Federal Communications Commission increased five-year spending on the E-Rate plan, the program designed to give school and public libraries free Internet access equal to businesses and residents, from $12 billion to over $20 billion.

These efforts are necessary to help rural and low-income families keep up with the growing pace of technology and Internet-related jobs. Without access to the Internet it will become nearly impossible for them to sustain a career or acquire a decent education.

Luckily, there seems to be more than enough room in the world for both books and computer workstations. Libraries across the nation are increasing their efforts to provide Internet access to local residents as it becomes a basic necessity in life. It’ll be interesting to see, as eBooks continue to gain in prominence, whether or not computer stations will begin to appear in place of bookshelves.

Photo Credit: Miguel M. Almeida/Flikr