Few institutions have been as essential to communities during the COVID-19 pandemic as public libraries. They’ve offered access to digital books and video streams, adapted with curbside pickups and found innovative ways to provide an internet connection to their patrons.
While these resources were invaluable, this period also highlighted the digital divide that exists between those who have home internet and devices and those who do not. Since 1996, public libraries have been able to take advantage of the E-Rate program, which provides internet connections at a discounted rate. As a result, they’ve often been the primary way for many people to get online, and have been critical in bridging the digital divide.
The role of libraries and the communities they impact
Libraries have been around for nearly as long as human civilizations, with the first libraries dating back nearly 5,000 years. These consisted of around 30,000 clay tablets in ancient Mesopotamia, stacked side by side with titles written on the edge facing out.
You can still find thousands of books at every public library in America, but the libraries serve a much larger role in their communities today. They provide on-site resources like one-on-one assistance to patrons, job-hunting training and access to internet and computers. Most importantly, it doesn’t cost anything to use a library.
As the National Endowment for the Humanities puts it, “The public library requires nothing of its visitors: no purchases, no membership fees, no dress code. You can stay all day, and you don’t have to buy anything.”
Students and low-income households
The library plays a particularly important role for students and low-income households that lack adequate access to the internet. Only 67% of households with less than $25,000 in income have access to a computer, and only 51.7% of them have access to the internet.
This has an enormous effect on education, where an internet connection is now more essential than ever. According to a June 2020 report from Common Sense Media and the Boston Consulting Group, more than 50 million public school students were learning remotely last year, but nine million of them didn’t have the necessary equipment or internet connection.
Libraries are one of the best tools we have for countering the homework gap among students. Because libraries have been able to get internet at a discounted rate through the E-Rate program, they’ve long been on the frontlines of the digital divide. In Seattle, for example, the public library allows patrons to “borrow the internet” through its inventory of 1,000 Wi-Fi hotspots.
The COVID-19 pandemic shone a spotlight on just how essential these types of services are. As a result, Congress devoted $7 billion in the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 to establish the Emergency Connectivity Fund, which provides funding for internet equipment and services to schools and libraries.
According to Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, the Emergency Connectivity Fund “will make it possible for libraries nationwide to offer their patrons, including students, new ways to go online and bring connectivity home.”
Additionally, libraries provide safe spaces for students to work on group projects, for tutors to meet students and for international students who may be coming to the U.S. without a computer.
In the larger community, many libraries also offer bilingual programs for immigrants, a place for attorneys to meet clients who need help with immigration needs and literacy support programs.
Seniors and older populations
Older Americans are one of the groups that utilizes libraries the most, with close to two-thirds reporting that they used the library in the past 12 months and half saying they visit the library at least once a week. Within that group, men were more likely to have visited than women.
Many libraries even tailor specific services to the needs of their older patrons. At Liberty Lake Municipal Library in Washington state, seniors can participate in a book club, board game events, take-home watercolor art kits and a “right-sizing” class aimed at helping them make the transition to smaller homes.
The Denver Public Library also offers programs specifically designed for seniors, including a 10-session course on wellness for older adults that covers topics like finances, relationships and health.
In addition to programs like these, libraries also provide a way for seniors to get online. According to the Pew Research Center, only 64% of adults over 65 have a home internet connection, compared to 79% of ages 50-64 and 86% of ages 30-49. For many people, a regular trip to the local library is the easiest way to catch up on emails or pay bills online.
People with disabilities
More than 40 million people in the U.S. live with a disability, but many of them still lack the devices or internet connection to get online. According to Pew, 62% of adults with a disability say they own a desktop or laptop computer, compared with 81% of those without a disability.
Unfortunately, the internet just isn’t very usable for many Americans with disabilities. Research from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, 39% of state government unemployment websites fail Web Content Accessibility Guidelines for people with disabilities. Even more alarming is that 86% of top one million websites fail the guidelines for low contrast text.
Libraries are often on the cutting edge of closing the digital divide for people with disabilities. Many libraries include web accessibility software for people with visual impairments, microphone systems for people with hearing impairments and curbside pickup for those with physical disabilities.
Parents and child support programs
The hours between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. are complicated ones for many parents. In 56% of married-couple families, both parents work, and 70% of them work from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. That leaves most families with a two-hour period after school ends but before parents can get home from work. With fewer than half of American public schools offering an after-school program, this leaves many families without a lot of good options.
In many areas, libraries have stepped in to provide childcare after school. One report from the nonprofit Afterschool Alliance found that three-quarters of afterschool programs in the U.S. say they’ve partnered with their public library. What’s more, 98% of the programs surveyed said they saw a benefit to working with public libraries, regardless of whether they had experience doing so.
The benefit can be as simple as providing a safe place to do homework or use a computer after school, or it can be more structured. Many libraries offer programs like summer reading initiatives, STEM education and book drives for both parents and children to get involved with.
Remote workers and job seekers
Over the past 15 years, Americans have increasingly used libraries for resources like skills training and job search assistance. That number has only increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw roughly 9.6 million U.S. workers lose their jobs. Even while libraries were closed for much of the pandemic, many of them still provided internet hotspots and online resources for job seekers.
Many public libraries offer resources like one-on-one help with job seeking and online resources for those looking for employment. In addition, libraries also offer resources on navigating the unemployment system for those who have lost their jobs. And in rural areas where internet access is spotty, libraries are often one of the most reliable sources for high-speed internet.
People experiencing homelessness
While libraries have long been a place for people to access resources, helping people experiencing poverty and homelessness is now a main focus. The American Library Association’s policy statement explicitly says, “It is crucial that libraries recognize their role in enabling poor people to participate fully in a democratic society, by utilizing a wide variety of available resources and strategies.”
Physical barriers and social exclusion often prevent people who are homeless from utilizing these resources, so many libraries work with shelters and housing facilities to promote their services. Programs focusing on health, mortgage or rental assistance, job seeking and applying for government benefits are often especially useful. In addition, libraries provide relief during times of extreme weather, as well as a place to simply relax, connect with others and receive support.
Other vulnerable populations
Because they’re a safe and open space for everyone, libraries are often the first point of contact for a community’s most vulnerable citizens. During the COVID-19 pandemic, libraries were often on the front lines serving these populations.
Some branches, like the San José Public Library, used 3-D printers to create hundreds of face shields and masks to donate to organizations in need. While not every library took such a high-tech approach, many of them were active in distributing face masks. In other locations, libraries partner with local food banks to help combat food insecurity and donate first aid kits at meal distribution sites.
Students living in troubled homes often rely on libraries as safe havens to learn and engage with others. Additionally, victims of household dangers, domestic violence and abuse can find comfort in meeting victim advocates at libraries without creating suspicion.
Mental health resources for supporting librarians and library staff
While working at a library is an incredibly rewarding experience, it can also take a huge mental and emotional toll on staff. Fortunately, there are a lot of great programs and resources available to library employees to help maintain wellness:
- WhatsMyM3: A free and anonymous mental health assessment, WhatsMyM3 takes about three minutes to complete and provides a personalized report on your mental health risks.
- Operation Reach Out: Developed by the military, this free app helps people who are having suicidal thoughts to reassess their thinking and get the help they need.
- MedlinePlus: This free resource is run by the National Institute of Health (NIH), and provides helpful, research-based advice on improving your mental health.
- NIH Emotional Wellness Toolkit: This toolkit from the NIH provides six effective strategies for improving your emotional health.
- Utilize your workplace EAP: Many public employees have access to an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), which offers short-term counseling, referrals and follow-up services to employees dealing with mental health issues.
- Self-help for Anxiety Management (SAM): Developed by psychologists at the University of the West of England, SAM provides a range of self-help techniques for people who are looking to manage their anxiety better.
- iBreathe: This free and easy-to-use app walks you through simple deep breathing exercises proven to reduce stress and anxiety.
- MindShift CBT: This free app uses cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques to adjust thinking and behaviors that lead to anxiety.
Financial and government assistance programs for libraries
One of the most pressing issues facing public libraries is funding. While the application period for the Emergency Connectivity Fund is currently closed, there are a number of other financial resources available to libraries:
- ALA Awards, Grants and Scholarships: The American Library Association (ALA) provides a comprehensible and easily searchable list of grants and scholarships available to libraries in the U.S.
- Institute of Museum and Library Services: The IMLS’s Grants to States program distributes more than $150 million to State Library Administrative Agencies, making it the largest source of federal funding for libraries.
- Lois Lenski Covey Foundation offers literacy program grants: Founded by children’s book author of “Strawberry Girl,” this foundation distributes grants to schools, nonprofits and public libraries that operate literacy programs that serve children from disadvantaged populations. It is only available in the following regions: greater Baltimore, New York City, Philadelphia and surrounding areas, and the Sacramento and San Francisco Bay areas.
- Bookmobile grants: Also operated by the Lois Lenski Covey Foundation, this program awards grants to bookmobile programs that serve children from disadvantaged populations in any area of the country.
- Scholastic Library Grants: The Scholastic children’s book publisher maintains an updated list of grants available to libraries around the country.
If you’re new to writing grant proposals, check out this helpful guide on grant writing for schools and libraries.
Organizations supporting libraries
In addition to the financial assistance options listed above, there are a number of other organizations that support libraries around the country:
- American Library Association: The oldest and largest library organization in the world, the ALA advocates for libraries on the federal and state levels, provides grants and scholarships and hosts conferences for librarians.
- American Association of School Librarians: The AASL has more than 7,000 members and serves school librarians in the U.S., Canada and other parts of the world.
- Public Library Association (PLA): This group is a division of the ALA that focuses specifically on public libraries. It’s a great resource for information on funding, learning opportunities and advocacy issues.
- United for Libraries: United for Libraries is a national network of library supporters that work together to advocate for libraries at the local, state and national levels.
- Association for Information Sciences and Technology (ASIS&T): The ASIS isn’t a library group specifically, but it is a useful resource for librarians as it provides training, research, publications and education on information technology.
Finding a library near you
With more than 119,000 libraries in the U.S., chances are good that you have one close to you. You can use this library locator tool to find your nearest branch by entering your city, state or ZIP code.Download a PDF fact sheet on libraries and the digital divide
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Written by:Joe Supan
Principal Writer, Broadband Content
Joe is a senior writer for CNET covering home technology and broadband. Prior to joining CNET, Joe led MYMOVE’s moving coverage and reported on broadband policy, the digital divide, and privacy issues for the br… Read more
Edited by:Robin Layton
Editor, Broadband Content
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