A new report from the Office for Information Technology Policy focuses attention on the capacity of rural public libraries to deploy Internet-enabled computing technologies and other resources to meet the needs of their residents.
“Rural Libraries in the United States: Recent Strides, Future Possibilities, and Meeting Community Needs” explores nuances of rurality, details challenges rural libraries face in maximizing their community impacts and describes how existing collaborative regional and statewide efforts help rural libraries and their communities.
- Sixty percent of rural libraries have a single location as part of their administrative system, hampering economies of scale.
- Rural libraries furthest from population centers (“rural remote”) are most likely to be single-outlet entities and lag rural counterparts (“rural distant” and “rural fringe”) in most measures of operational capacity.
- Rural library broadband capacity falls short of benchmarks set for U.S. home access, which is 25 Mbps download and 4 Mbps upload speeds. By contrast, rural fringe libraries average 13/8.6 Mbps, rural distant is 7.7/2.2 Mbps and rural remote is 6.7/1 Mbps.
- Overall, one in 10 rural libraries report their internet speeds rarely meet patron needs.
- Rural libraries are on par with colleagues in larger communities in terms of public wi-fi access and providing patrons’ assistance with basic computer and internet training, but more specialized training and resources can lag.
- More than half of all rural libraries offer programs that help local residents apply for jobs and use job opportunity resources (e.g., online job listings, resume software), and rural libraries are comparable to their peers in providing work space for mobile workers.
- Significant proportions of all rural libraries (even the most remote) offer programs and services related to employment, entrepreneurship, education, community engagement and health and wellness.
- The level of programming and services is particularly noteworthy in light of staffing levels: 4.2 median FTE for rural fringe, 2.0 for rural distant and just 1.3 for rural remote libraries.
- Rural libraries were the least likely to report renovations had taken place in the past five years; about 15 percent, compared with a national average of 21 percent. The Digital Inclusion Survey noted a relationship between facility updates and services and library program offerings.
Finally, the authors consider the roles of state and regional cooperation in adding capacity and resources for rural libraries, looking at examples from Maryland and Iowa.
One-third of all U.S. public libraries serve areas with populations of 2,500 or fewer people, and this new report provides one of the most detailed looks at their services available to date.