Computer Use Increases at Rural Libraries

Computer use and per-capita visitation at rural libraries climbed from 2008-2011, while urban libraries saw a drop in those measurements. A new report from the Institute for Museum and Library Services provides a first-of-its-kind glimpse of how rural patrons use their public libraries.

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Rural libraries are stepping in to help fill the rural broadband gap, and rural residents are responding by increased use of public-access computers at these public institutions. 

That’s one of the findings in a first-of-its kind report on the state of rural and small libraries in the United States, issued by the federal (and currently closed) Institute for Museum and Library Services.

The study also found that in urban areas, public-library computer use and per-capita visits declined during the same period.

The study examines funding, staffing and services in the nation’s 4,100 rural libraries.

From 2008 to 2011 the number of publicly accessible computers in rural libraries increased by about 20% to 49,000 computers, the report says. During the same period, use of these computers increased 6.7% to 41.3 million uses.

Meanwhile in libraries in urbanized areas, the use of publicly accessible computers decreased by 9.5%.

“Rural areas have less access to broadband services than urban areas,” the report says. “In order to mitigate this disparity in access, rural libraries have made additional efforts to increase their electronic resources.”

(We tried to contact one of the report’s author to expand on this statement but received an automatic reply that her office was closed because of the government shut-down.)

Photo by Chip Ellis
The Hurricane branch of Putnam County (West Virginia) Libraries has four Internet-connected computers. The report says the median number of terminals in rural libraries is six.

Only about a third of the nation’s rural libraries have “digital libraries” or e-books in their collections.

Here are some other findings:

Visitation is up.

  • The average visitation per capita at rural public libraries was 6.7 visits per year, an increase of 4.2% during the three-year study period.
  • Urban libraries had a lower visitation rate, 5.7 visits per capita. 
  • The raw number of visits to urban libraries was about three times the number of visits to rural libraries, a reflection of the size of the population the libraries serve.

City libraries are open longer.

  • Rural libraries were open an average of 33.5 hours a week. Urban libraries were open an average of 42.7 hours.

Revenue is down.

  • Rural libraries had a decrease of 3.4% in revenue from 2010 to 2011. 
  • Local funding of rural libraries (which makes up four-fifths of the rural-library revenue stream) was up a bit. But state funding dropped by 20% over the period.
  • Per capita funding of urban libraries was 30% higher than rural library funding. 

Staffing has declined.

  • Rural libraries employed 17,090 full-time equivalents, or about 16% of all employment in the nation’s public libraries.
  • The number of professionally accredited and educated librarians in rural libraries increased over the study period, but the overall number of staff fell.
  • The median total staff at rural libraries was 1.5. (That means half of rural libraries had more staff than 1.5 and half had less.) In libraries serving urbanized areas, the median staff number was 44.7.

The report, “The State of Small and Rural Libraries in the United States,” was written by Deanne W. Swan, Justin Grimes and Timothy Owens.




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