In Beverly Choltco-Devlin’s December 17, 2011 reply to my earlier digital divide posting, she correctly identifies a range of “challenges” that face rural public libraries in providing high-speed broadband to their users and then concludes:
…for many of those living in geographically remote rural areas with limited infrastructure or those who suffer greatly from the current economic crisis, I believe the local public library is the place of ONLY resort for equal access to information and the ONLY HOPE for closing the digital divide.
I stand corrected from my December 13 posting in which I stated that many “public libraries were increasingly becoming the place of both first resort and last resort to address the digital divide and obtain Internet training/assistance.” Maybe the correct wording is “first resort, last resort, and oftentimes the ONLY resort!”
Tables 21 and 22 in the 2010-2011 Public Library Funding and Technology Access Survey document the extent to which residents relying on rural public libraries are handicapped in their use of and access to broadband and the quality of broadband access available to them:
- 66% of urban public libraries have a fiber broadband connection while only 22% of rural public libraries have a fiber connection;
- 22% of urban public libraries have a 10-20 megabit per second (Mbps) connection while only 6% of rural public libraries have a 10-20 Mbps connection; and
- While 21% of urban public libraries have a broadband connection greater than 40 Mbps, only 6% of rural public libraries can boast of such a connection.
Similar discrepancies are also found in urban versus rural public library information technology staffing, Internet training and programming, total workstations, wireless connections, and general resource support for high-speed broadband access and services.
Yet, interestingly enough, a recent paper found that some U.S. rural libraries have been able to take leadership positions in their communities for broadband access and use. Considering broadband a community asset, coordinating local organizations’ use of broadband (e.g., schools, county health departments, local government, etc.), promoting training and education, and fighting for equitable (cheaper) broadband contracts with local Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are all part of the formula.
While ISP availability and speed are critically important, our research shows that one of the most important elements for successful rural broadband public library access and use, oftentimes, is the presence of a dynamic, innovative, and charismatic public library director (or other librarian) who has great credibility and visibility with other community leaders, organizations, and local residents.
Once again, individuals can and do make a difference—and clearly some individual rural public library directors and staff maximize residents’ access to and use of the Internet whether access is the first resort, the last resort, or the ONLY resort —even with all the challenges and difficulties they must overcome!
But despite how good these rural public librarians might be, we also need the US government through the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to make good on one of its 2012 new year resolutions, which is “Expanding High Speed Internet Access and Adoption,” while noting that 1 in 3 US households lack high-speed Internet service—some 100 million Americans. We’ll probe more into rural public library high-speed broadband provision and issues in a future posting.