Think of libraries — you think of books. But these days many more people in rural communities are also thinking of computers because libraries have become primary places for people to access the broadband internet connections.
And meeting that growing demand has been a concern for Wayne Onkst, the State Librarian and Commissioner with the Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives. On the bright side, he says Kentucky libraries are ahead of other states in that they all libraries in Kentucky’s 117 public library systems have access to broadband. The drawback is that many don’t have enough equipment and space to meet demand.
“Government and private industry both are making so many services only available online,” he says. “And in many communities were broadband access is limited, the library is the one place in the community where people can go to do that.”
And that demand has been growing since the onslaught of the recession, as more and more people go online to look for jobs and for education purposes. Furthermore, officials in the department say that local libraries are reporting an increase in computer use from people who tell them they have discontinued their at home service because of finances.
This is why Onkst and others in the department and libraries throughout Kentucky were happy last week to hear that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is going to help the state compete for federal economic stimulus dollars offered through the Department of Commerce‘s National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s new Broadband Technology Opportunities Program. The foundation is also working with 13 other states in similar pursuits.
The funds are part of $200 million that’s being distributing to expand computer center capacity for public use in libraries, community colleges and other public venues to expand broadband access to unserved and underserved communities and, in turn, increase jobs and spur investments in technology and infrastructure. It’s just part of the $7.2 billion total in stimulus funds that are being allotted to expand broadband access and adoption across the country.
Kentucky’s Department for Libraries and Archives is planning to apply for $1.2 million and will have to have matching funds. Officials stress that this application process for funds is arduous and competitive and requires a minimum of 20 percent in matching funds for the amount requested. The Gates Foundation is going to provide a consultant to work with officials in writing the application and provide about $200,000 in matching funds if the application is accepted.
Casey County Public Library director Jan Banks says she certainly hopes it is. Last year, when reporting on Kentucky’s bookmobile program, I visited Banks in Liberty. She told me more and more people were coming in to get their state tax forms online because the government wasn’t printing them. (State government also stopped printing manuals used by people studying for their driver’s license and now offers them only online.) Recently, she wrote me detailing other reasons people are coming to the library: “In our county, we no longer have an employment office, so our patrons come to us to look on the Internet for jobs, file for benefits, work on resumes and attend college classes.”
But state officials are saying the application process these federal funds will be tough. One says that she’s talked to applicants from other states that have gone through the initial application process whom federal officials are now peppering with questions about their applications. And the process will be fierce given that libraries and other public centers need the help. That’s backed by the fact that 60 percent of all libraries say their current Internet speed is inadequate, according to a recent American Library Association study.