In a just released new survey, the Public Library Association found that libraries are continuing to expand their roles as technology providers. But the report also found the need for significant investment, as lagging broadband infrastructure is impeding access in too many communities across the nation.

The report, 2020 Public Library Technology Survey, provides a current, detailed snapshot of how libraries serve as “digital equity” hubs.

Among its findings, the data shows that, for the first time, more than half of public libraries reported circulating technology for patron use off-site (hotspots, laptops, and tablets). A similar percentage reported providing streaming public programs (such as story times or author events), as well other digital content, resources, and training. The report found that many libraries also offer 24/7 internet access, by leaving on or extending their Wi-Fi signal so visitors could access the internet outside of library buildings.

“The new survey report details how our nation’s public libraries serve as critical infrastructure for bridging digital divides, empowering lifelong learning, and advancing economic recovery,” said PLA President Melanie Huggins, in a release.

While the survey's findings are particularly relevant in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, which exposed “persistent digital divides” nationwide, the report's focus was broader than the pandemic. “Libraries were asked to report technology as usually available, whether before or during the pandemic or if the library planned to make the technology available again in the future,” the executive summary states.

PLA, a division of the American Library Association, fielded the nationally representative survey in collaboration with the American Institutes for Research in late 2020. It examines library patron resources, technology infrastructure, digital literacy programming, technology staffing, and funding.

Among the reports key findings:

  • E-books and e-audiobooks dominate public library technology-enabled services. More than 93% percent of U.S. public libraries now offer digital collections, which are now in high demand in the wake of the pandemic. In 2020, library e-book provider Overdrive reported an unprecedented 33% increase in e-book checkouts in 2020.
  • More than 63 percent of public libraries now offer online job and employment resources. By deploying augmented reality for job training, videoconferencing resources, and in-person and virtual co-working spaces, libraries are expected to play an expanding role in the economic recovery, and as the labor market adjusts.
  • Libraries continue to play an essential role in advancing digital literacy. More than 88% of all public libraries offer some form of digital literacy programming; More than a third (36.7%) of public libraries have dedicated digital literacy and technology programs and training staff; More than one in five libraries provide classes or informal help related to coding, computer programming, robotics, and 3D printing.
  • Libraries are among the few public places to also maintain ready access to the “older” technology still needed by many people. While 3D printers (offered by 20% of libraries), virtual reality headsets (13%), and smart boards (7%) are the “new kids on the block,” many patrons rely on libraries for access to copy machines, printers, and fax machines.

The report also highlights persistent concerns—chief among them, the need for significant investment in our digital infrastructure.

“The data shows gaps in available general technology resources and staffing among city, suburban, and town and rural public libraries,” the report notes.

For example, 40.4% of town and rural libraries reported upgrading their bandwidth, compared to 51.4% of city libraries. And more than 65% of city libraries reported having full-time library IT staff, compared to just 32% for suburban and just 11% for town and rural. Further, more than a third of libraries (34.6%) said they can’t improve bandwidth because faster speeds are not available.

“Investing in affordable, high-speed internet for our communities and libraries is essential to building an inclusive digital future,” Huggins said, pointing out that library supporters must continue to press the case with Congress, which, “has recognized the indispensable role of libraries in recent pandemic relief and recovery legislation and must continue to do so as it debates how to rebuild our nation’s infrastructure.”

Additional 2020 Public Library Technology Survey findings and information are available here.

The results of PLA’s 2020 Public Library Technology Survey provide essential information about libraries’ digital resources and capacity, as well as trends to watch and persistent issues to address,” the report’s executive summary concludes. “Key among these issues is digital equity: for everyone to participate fully in a shared digital future, fast, affordable broadband infrastructure and technology-related training and support are needed for libraries and the communities we serve."