by Kristin R. Eschenfelder, Catherine Arnott Smith
School of Library and Information Studies
High speed access to the Internet is now an integral part of modern American life, yet proposed elimination of WiscNet, and through WiscNet Wisconsin public libraries’ low cost internet access, would hurt the most vulnerable citizens in our state: the unemployed, the underemployed and those struggling to make ends meet and better their situation in tough economic times.
Computers and the high speed access to the internet are now a must have for job searching, investigating the health options for one’s family, interacting with banks and investing to generate wealth, engaging with educational institutions, interacting with government agencies to obtain services, and fully participating in democratic society.
Those without high speed internet access stand at a distinct disadvantage.
For example, according to Pew 56% of 18-29 year olds and 46% of 30-49 year olds felt that lack of broadband access conveyed a “major disadvantage” in terms of finding employment and improving job skills.
Yet Pew Internet and Society and US Department of Commerce reports confirm that in 2008 and 2009 around 1/3 of the American public did not have high speed internet access at home (2010). Many of these non-subscribers depend on public libraries for high speed internet access.
How does public library internet access support job seeking?
Public library internet access is used by the unemployed to fill out job applications and correspond with potential employers via email. Moreover, for those lacking basic job hunting skills, public libraries increasingly provide internet and computer training on how to use the internet to find jobs and how to write resumes. Our ongoing research on public libraries and financial literacy shows that public libraries see helping citizens find jobs as their most pressing financial related information service (http://publibraryfinlit.wordpress.com/).
Public library free internet access becomes more important during times of financial stress. It is part of the public library’s very reason for being to provide services either free or at low cost; public libraries are located everywhere in the country, have more open hours than other kinds of community agencies, and are often accessible by public transportation (Xie & Bugg 2009).
A 2007 study showed that for over ¾ of American communities the public library was the only reliable source of free internet access for the general public and that public demand for more terminals and more time continually challenged library resources (Bertot, McClure, Jager 2007). The number of free internet computers in Wisconsin public libraries varies from Milwaukee public library’s 388 reported internet computers to Lowell Public Library’s 2 internet computers (DPI 2009).
What do people use library internet computers to do? One 2008 study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project investigated requests for government information in public libraries. These researchers found that respondents went to a library for help in:
- Making a decision about schooling, paying for education, or getting training for self or a child [20% of respondents]
- Changing jobs, retiring, starting your own business [11%]
- Serious illness or health conditions in self or someone close [10%]
- Property taxes or income taxes [10%]
- Medicare/Medicaid/food stamps [10%]
- Social Security/military benefits [10%] (Pew 2007)
Libraries are a major source of access to the internet by low-income, jobless, or transient. Families with household income of <$15,000 are 2-3 times more likely to use library computers than those earning >$75,000.
While no differences by race and ethnicity have been found in library use overall, African-American and Hispanic adults have been found to be significantly more likely to use the public library when researching employment opportunities and writing resumes (American Libraries 2006). In addition, African-Americans were the largest demographic group in one survey reporting computer use at the library—80% respondents in contrast to just over 50% of White library users (Pew 2007).
Is home broadband affordability a problem?
Why don’t people subscribe to broadband at home? Surveys of non subscribers report that 40% of respondents cite cost, 17% reported not subscribing because of not having an adequate computer, and 15% reported not subscribing because they could “use it elsewhere.” (Pew 2010; Commerce 2010)
How much does high speed internet access in Wisconsin cost? This spring our LIS 202 Information Divides and Differences class conducted a town vs rural pricing analysis for about 24 Wisconsin counties using Link Wisconsin data. In the analysis we could clearly see that rural residents are at a disadvantage because fewer providers offer service in their areas. Listed prices among wireline providers vary from the mid 20s to upwards of $40 a month for modest broadband speeds. (http://www.link.wisconsin.gov)
Moreover, those who do not live in town on near major roads are at even more of a disadvantage because they may only have access to satellite based broadband which is much more expensive — upwards of $80 per month.
The 40 to 80 dollar monthly charges may not be affordable for families given under and unemployment. Families stretching to pay mortgages or rent may cancel high speed internet access, increasing their reliance on high speed internet access at public libraries and schools.
Maintaining free high speed access to the internet at public libraries is integral to ensuring that every citizen of Wisconsin has the opportunity to improve their economic situations, regardless of whether they can currently afford home broadband or not. Tony Evers of DPI explains the importance of WiscNet based internet access for public libraries and the likely increased costs that libraries will incur if WiscNet is abolished: “ninety-five percent of our public libraries get Internet access via WiscNet… and if our schools and libraries must use other Internet providers most will pay at least 2-3 times more than what WiscNet now charges.” (DPI 2011)
Who doesn’t think broadband internet access is important?
To be fair, there is an element of the population that feels that broadband access is not important, and that not having access entails no disadvantage. According to Pew polling, that element tends to be 65 years of age or older and that element tends not to current use the internet (Pew Home Broadband 2010)
American Libraries (2006) New study reveals growth in library usage. American Libraries, 37 no 4, 4 Apr 2006.
Bertot, McClure, Jager (2007) Public Libraries and the Internet 2007: Issues, Implications and Expectations. Library& Information Science Research (30) 175-184.
Department of Public Instruction (2011, July)Department of Public Instruction State Superintendent Press Release (http://www.wispolitics.com/index.iml?Article=238671)
Department of Public Instruction (2009) Wisconsin Public Library Service Data: Statistics at the Public Library Level [data set] (http://www.dpi.state.wi.us/pld/dm-lib-stat.html)
Link Wisconsin Mapping Tool (http://www.link.wisconsin.gov)
Pew Internet and Society (2010) Home Broadband 2010 (http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2010/Home-Broadband-2010.aspx)
Pew Internet and Society (2007) Information Searches that Solve Problems (http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2007/Information-Searches-That-Solve-Problems.aspx)
US Department of Commerce (2010) Exploring the Digital Nation: Home Broadband Internet Adoption In The United States (http://www.ntia.doc.gov/reports/2010/ESA_NTIA_US_Broadband_Adoption_Report_11082010.pdf)
Xie B, Bugg JM. (2009) Public library computer training for older adults to access high-quality Internet health information. Library and Information Science Research. 31(3):155-162
Smith, C.A.; Eschenfelder, K.R. (2011) Public Libraries and Financial Literacy Research Project (http://publibraryfinlit.wordpress.com/).
LIS 202 Information Divides and Differences in a Multicultural Society (http://kreschen.wordpress.com/classes/lis-202-digital-divides-and-differences-in-an-information-society/)