Rural libraries have long been a crucial part of the small-town way of life: from developing reading programs for both youth and adults, to providing a place to go on-line and ask technology questions, to simply serving as a gathering place for community events. They are often taken for granted by many residents, but are undoubtedly a source of community pride and identity.
Now we’ve found through a new study that rural libraries may also provide another important benefit: They may increase local rates of household broadband adoption.
Our study found that, even after controlling for other things that likely influence broadband adoption (such as levels of income, education, and age), an additional library in a rural county was associated with higher residential broadband adoption rates. The size of the relationship was not large – each additional library would increase the local adoption rate by roughly 1% – however, libraries were the only type of “community anchor institution” to show any kind of relationship. Perhaps most importantly, this link was only found for libraries in the most rural counties.
The History of Public Libraries and Computers
Public libraries have played a key role in providing public access to computers and the Internet since the early 1990s. Internet connectivity jumped from around 20% to nearly 100% in the decade between 1994 and 2004. Public libraries continue to be one of the only providers of free Internet access in the community, which is particularly important for lower-income adults and children. A 2013 study found that 56% of Internet users without home access classified public libraries’ computers, Internet, and printers as ‘very important’ to them, compared with 33% of all respondents.
Public libraries also play an important role in promoting “digital inclusion,” which entails trying to address issues of digital access, knowledge, and skill. In particular, the library may be one of the first places that many individuals experience what the Internet is. Librarians across the nation are constantly being asked for help as patrons attempt to find the information they need. Many public libraries have developed formal digital literacy training programs to help individuals without the appropriate background knowledge.
The Research Question
This research sought to answer the question of whether the use of public computers at these libraries might actually lead to increased household broadband adoption as patrons became aware of what they could accomplish when using the Internet.
To accomplish this, the we meshed county-level Federal Communications Commission data on residential broadband adoption with information on the number of community anchor institutions as classified by the National Broadband Map (all from 2013).
Other types of anchor institutions, as defined by the FCC, included schools, medical buildings such as hospitals, public safety institutions such as fire departments, universities, and governmental buildings – nearly all of which have their own broadband connection. Table 1 lists the numbers of anchor institutions across three types of counties in the U.S. – metropolitan counties (which contain cities of 50,000 and up or are economically linked to such a county), micropolitan (nonmetropolitan counties that contain a city of 10,000 but less than 50,000), and noncore (nonmetropolitan counties that have no city larger than 9,999 residents). The amount of infrastructure in the most rural counties is, expectedly, below that in the other categories.
The analysis results were striking. While levels of income and education increased the likelihood of broadband adoption rates (as expected), the only community anchor institution to be associated with higher broadband adoption rates was libraries – and this relationship only held in noncore (or the most rural) counties.
Why Only Rural?
Although we can’t definitively state why this link is only seen in rural areas, it may be that the relationships between librarians and their patrons in these small towns could lead residents to have more confidence that they can obtain a broadband connection at home. Alternatively, the library may play a more central role in the lives of many rural people as compared to some urban ones, which could make the benefits of having quick access to the Internet more apparent.
We must caution, however, against making statements of causality. In fact, we attempted to find out whether the relationship is a causal one by looking explicitly at those libraries that aggressively increased either their number of public computers or hours of public computer use over the period 2008 – 2012. We found no evidence that these libraries were able to raise local broadband adoption rates faster than other libraries.
There are several directions for future research, including conducting smaller-scale studies in rural areas with both low and high household broadband adoption rates. We hope this would provide information about how rural librarians are successfully (and unsuccessfully) engaging their patrons and potentially encouraging them to adopt broadband in their own households.
Brian Whitacre is an associate professor and extension economist in the Department of Agricultural Economics at Oklahoma State University.
Colin Rhinesmith is an assistant professor of Library and Information Studies at the University of Oklahoma.
Their full study is available online.