Data on the changing role of libraries in the digital age

Derek Slater is a policy manager at Google.

Ten years ago, the U.S. Congress looked at Internet access in libraries as “no more than a technological extension of the book stack.” In fact, the Supreme Court cited this statement in the United States v. American Library Association decision, upholding government regulations requiring that, as a condition of funding for Internet access in the library, libraries must install content filtering software. The Court asserted that “A public library does not acquire Internet terminals in order … for Web publishers to express themselves.”

Ten years later, data suggests otherwise. A recent survey from the Pew Research Center shows that today Internet access plays a much bigger role in libraries. Over a quarter of Americans say they get Internet access at libraries, with “African-Americans and Hispanics are more likely than whites to access the internet at their local library, as are parents of minor children, those under age 50, those living in households earning less than $30,000, and those with at least some college experience.” What’s more, a Gates Foundation report finds that “people use library computers to perform both life-changing and routine tasks,” both in discovering information and as a means of expression. For example, over a half-million Americans used library computers to start a local club or nonprofit group.

What impact has Congress’ initial judgment and policy had as technology use has changed? It’s clear that all filtering tools are overbroad and block some lawful speech, but we’re not aware of any studies analyzing what the economic and social impact of filtering has been. As Congress and states look at how to support libraries in a time of shrinking government budgets, this empirical question is worth tackling.


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