So Librarian in Black let me know recently about a report put out by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which shows where the U.S. stands in terms of home broadband connections.
According to the report, which breaks down the results by gender, age, race, education, income, and urbanity, about 70% of the country has a broadband connection at home and 56% of the country has a smartphone. Of the smartphone owners, about 10% have no broadband connection to a computer. So, combining the smartphone owners and home broadband owners, it’s fair to say that 80% of the country has ready and fast access to the Internet. There’s also still a small 3% out there who still have a dial-up connection.
The study didn’t mention any overlap between the 3% of dial-up users and 10% of smartphone-only users, so just for fun, let’s pretend they don’t overlap and thus 83% of our population has some sort of connection to the internet in their home. That still means a whopping 17% of our population does not have any home internet connection whatsoever. That’s nearly 1 in 6 people! They either are not connecting to the internet at all (which is probably fine for about half of them), or they’re finding ways to connect to the internet outside the home: friends, relatives, school, work, wireless in restaurants and cafes, leeching from their neighbor’s unsecured wi-fi connection, or – you guessed it – the public library.
Now, let’s make this data a little more real by applying it to the city where I work. Remember, 83% of people are connected in some way. (It would actually be really fun to sit and compare the broadband data against the census data along age, education, and income for the city and for my branch’s neighborhood, but then this post would never get done.) The Census Bureau estimated the 2012 population at 130,741 residents, so if 17% of city residents don’t have a home internet connection, that equals 22,226 people who are offline. That in itself is the population of a small city. For those 22,226 people, our five library locations are the only free, secure, and oftentimes convenient way to get online. On top of that, there is always assistance from tech-savvy staff and free computer literacy classes. No other body of government is providing free computer literacy classes to the public except the library.
Even if half doesn’t feel a need to be connected (another blog post for another date, that one), there are still 11,113 people who are interested in connecting and are looking outside their homes to go online. And that number doesn’t include many of the undocumented immigrants in the city, nor people travelling from out of state, nor the usually-connected residents whose connection is temporarily down (if that’s 0.5% of the population and 1/4 heads to the library to get online, that’s 163 patrons muttering to themselves about how long it takes Comcast to send out a maintenance van), nor the seniors who normally don’t use computers but get a letter from a government agency directing them to fill out a form on the agency’s website, or they want to see Facebook photos of their new grandchild who was born in another state. Does that bring the number to 12,000? 15,000? 25,000? With this in mind, why are budgets still shrinking when it’s obvious that public libraries are providing such a vital service to populations that are at a great technological and social disadvantage?