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Libraries celebrate 20th anniversary of telecom act

Libraries are celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the 1996 Telecommunications Act this week!
Libraries are celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the 1996 Telecommunications Act this week!

When the 1996 Telecommunications Act was signed into law, only 28% of libraries provided public internet access. What a dizzying two decades we’ve experienced since then! It’s hard to imagine how #librariestransform without also considering the innovations enabled by the Act and the E-rate program it created.

Libraries were named one of seven major application areas for the National Information Infrastructure in a 1994 taskforce report: “For education and for libraries, all teachers and students in K-12 schools and all public libraries—whether in urban suburban, or rural areas; whether in rich or in poor neighborhoods—need access to the educational and library services carried on the NII. All commercial establishments and all workers must have equal access to the opportunities for electronic commerce and telecommuting provided by the NII. Finally, all citizens must have equal access to government services provided over the NII.”

In his 1997 State of the Union address, President Clinton called for all schools and libraries to be wired by 2000. We came close: 96% of libraries were connected by this time.

Looking back at precursor reports to the Digital Inclusion Survey, we see both how much things have changed—and how some questions and challenges have stubbornly lingered. Fewer and fewer of us likely remember the dial up dial tone, but in 1997 nearly half of all libraries were connected to the internet at speeds of 28.8kbps. (Thankfully, by 2006 we weren’t even asking about this speed category anymore!) The average number of workstations was 1.9, compared to 19 today.

Then, as now, though, libraries reported that their bandwidth and number of public computers available were unable to meet patron demand at least some of the time. Libraries, like the nation as a whole, also continue to see disparities among urban, suburban and rural library connectivity.

Or how about this quote from the 1997 report under the subheading The Endless Upgrade: “One-shot fixes for IT in public libraries is not a viable policy strategy.”

As exhausting as we may sometimes feel at the speed of change, what has been enabled is truly transformative. From connecting rural library patrons to legal counsel via videoconferencing in Maine to creating and uploading original digital content from library patrons nationwide, “The E’s of Libraries®” are powered by broadband.

According to a 2013 Pew Internet Project report, the availability of computers and internet access now rivals book lending and reference expertise as vital library services. Seventy-seven percent of Americans say free access to computers and the internet is a “very important” service of libraries, compared with 80 percent who say borrowing books and access to reference librarians are “very important” services.

America’s libraries owe a debt to Senators Rockefeller, Snowe and Markey for recognizing and investing in the vital roles libraries and schools play in leveraging the internet to support education and lifelong learning. And we also are grateful to the current FCC for upgrading E-rate for today—setting gigabit goals and creating new opportunities to expand fiber connections to even our most geographically far flung. We invite you to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Telecom Act (hashtag #96×20) and share how your #librariestransform with high-speed broadband all this week.

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Larra Clark

Larra Clark is the deputy director of both the Public Library Association and Washington Office’s public policy team. Larra received her bachelor's degree in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Arizona and has a M.S. in Library and Information Science from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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