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Virtually every U.S. public library now offers free Internet access but most ration it, inhibiting the ability of lower-income families to benefit from the Information Age.
Libraries in Fresno County, Calif., impose a half-hour limit during peak periods, but one branch reported that patrons needed two hours or more of computer time just to fill out online job applications for a new Home Depot store.
Typically, two to seven people are waiting for a computer to become free at the main library.
Time limits mean "people can't get to the things that are important to them," said Karen Bosch Cobb, Fresno's interim chief librarian. "People are doing grant applications, scholarship, reading their e-mail," she said, while immigrants use the Internet to stay in touch with relatives abroad via e-mail and read news about their native countries.
In a study released Thursday, the American Library Association said 99.6 percent of libraries are now connected to Internet, with all but a handful offering access to the public. That compares with 20.9 percent in 1994 when the study was first conducted.
"If you look at some of these numbers, some people might have a tendency to say, 'My gosh, they are connected. They are doing all these things. They don't need help anymore,'" said John Bertot, the Florida State University professor who directed the study. "That has me concerned. Public libraries do still need help."
For the first time, libraries were asked about their ability to meet demand. Seventy percent of libraries said there aren't enough computer terminals during peak periods, while another 16 percent said there's always a shortage.
Shortages are most common in high-poverty and urban areas, the study found.
The El Paso, Texas, library system tripled the number of computers to nearly 300 "and we still can't keep up," said Carol Brey-Casiano, the library director and ALA president. "It seems like the more we add, the more computers we need."
Two-thirds of American adults now use the Internet, according to a March survey from the Pew Internet and American Life Project. But the U.S. Commerce Department found in 2003 that 14 percent of Internet users, including children, have no access at home and depend on libraries, school or work.
"While most of America's middle class has Internet access at home, there's still a digital divide among low-income citizens, people with limited education, ethnic minorities and other groups," said Andy Carvin, an expert in improving access to technology and the Internet.
Carvin is particularly concerned about lines and time limits, saying it's not always reasonable to simply ask patrons to come back.
"For students, they have a limited turnaround time to conduct research or do homework," Carvin said. "For many low-income residents working multiple jobs just to make ends meet, they lack the flexibility to come during low-use hours."
The ALA study also found that while most libraries offer training, they tend to be ad-hoc - librarians offering individual assistance whenever they have time. Only 28 percent offer regularly scheduled classes - 16 percent in rural areas.
Forty-two percent of libraries have high-speed connections, but only 34 percent of rural libraries, compared with 73 percent in urban areas.
"If you limit people to a half hour, and they are trying to download large files (over a dial-up modem), chances are your time is going to be up before you can do it," Bertot said.
While some libraries reported funding constrains, space is what prevents others from offering more Internet terminals. Unable to expand, the library in Prairie du Chien, Wisc., installed Wi-Fi wireless access points so patrons can connect using their own laptops.
Overall, 18 percent of libraries offer wireless access and another 21 percent plan to do so within the next year.
But many people who depend on libraries for the Internet also do not own computers, let alone laptops.
The study, conducted with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and its library grants program, was based on questionnaires administered to a random sampling of the nation's public libraries from November to February.