National Coalition Will Establish Benchmarks to Support High-Quality Computer & Internet Access at Public Libraries

March 29th, 2011

$2.8 million in new Gates Foundation funding will support initiative

An unprecedented national coalition has formed to design and pilot a series of public access technology benchmarks for public libraries, with $2.8 million in funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The coalition—which represents library and local government leaders—will develop guidelines that define quality technology services at libraries and how to continuously improve them to motivate local re-investment in public technology access at libraries.

Public libraries are increasingly critical community providers of free public access to computers and the internet. A recent national research report from the University of Washington Information School and the Institute of Museum and Library Services,

Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries, shows that approximately one-third of Americans utilize free computer and internet access at a public library to find work, apply for college, secure government benefits, get important health information and connect with their communities. Local demand for online access at libraries continues to grow as more people turn to their local library to get information online, and to get help using online tools, from library staff. However, the quality and level of access that libraries provide varies significantly throughout the country.

“As the public institution that provides computer and internet access to people from all walks of life, libraries must ensure that their technology services continuously advance to enable users to meet 21st century opportunities available through technology,” said Susan Benton, president of the Urban Libraries Council. “We believe that benchmarks will help local leaders understand the value of public access technology and ensure that those services meet the needs of all community members. Urban Libraries Council is proud to lead and facilitate the work of the benchmarks coalition, which includes outstanding leaders from the library and local government fields.”

The benchmarks will be developed by a coalition of organizations that bring diverse perspectives and expertise to the effort, including:

  • Library support organizations, American Library Association Office for Information Technology Policy and Public Library Association, LYRASIS, Urban Libraries Council, and WebJunction-OCLC;
  • The State Libraries of California, Oklahoma and Texas;
  • Two university-based research groups from the University of Maryland and University of Washington;
  • Local government support organization, International City/County Management Association;
  • TechSoup Global, an organization that provides technology support throughout the nonprofit sector;
  • and, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The development of the benchmarks will include three phases. To begin, the coalition will draft prototype benchmarks and will collect feedback from the library field and local government leaders to ensure the benchmarks will be meaningful and useful to libraries and communities across the country. Next, the group will test an initial set of benchmarks in communities in California, Oklahoma and Texas, beginning in fall 2011. The prototype benchmarks will be refined with feedback from the pilot communities and the library field. They will be launched for broad use by the library community in spring 2012.

“This initiative is the next critical step in the library field’s successful effort to bring information and opportunity to communities, through public access technology,” said Jill Nishi, deputy director of U.S. Libraries and Special Initiatives for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “We are tremendously proud to support this coalition and their collective vision for the public access technology benchmarks.”

National policy makers have recently underscored the valuable role libraries play in providing public access technology for communities. Libraries were acknowledged as vital internet access providers in the National Broadband Plan released by the Federal Communications Commission in 2010. The plan also called for the development of guidelines that identify the critical elements needed to support digital inclusion in all communities, so all people have access to technology and digital information. As a result, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) is currently leading the creation of a Framework for Digitally Inclusive Communities.

The public access technology benchmarks for libraries will dovetail with IMLS’s broader framework, but will focus exclusively on meaningful, achievable public technology access guidelines for libraries.

“Public libraries provide unique and critical support to communities, ensuring that all residents in a community have access to essential technology,” said Ron Carlee, COO of ICMA, “In this time of limited resources, libraries and their funders, especially local governments, need clear guidelines for how to deliver high-quality online access. Local decision makers want to understand how to achieve the best standard of service for communities and ensure that taxpayers get the best return on technology investments.”