Linda Lord, Maine’s state librarian, represented the nation’s 16,400 public libraries Wednesday in her call to Congress to provide a “proactive vision for meeting the educational and learning needs of our communities for the next 15 years and beyond.” Her testimony—at a hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation—also detailed the success of the E-rate program in helping serve more than 30 million people every week.
The hearing, “E-Rate 2.0: Connecting Every Child to the Transformative Power of Technology,” aimed to address issues on strengthening the program that provides discounted Internet access and telecommunications services to U.S. schools and libraries, in response to the Obama Administration ‘s directive last month to fund access to broadband to nearly all students within the next five years.
“I’m old enough to remember when it took 20 minutes to establish a dial-up connection. Clearly we are in a different place today. So are our libraries,” Lord told the committee [PDF], which oversees the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), who administers E-Rate.
“In 1998, I could not have envisioned the programs libraries offer today. For instance, we are using interactive videoconferencing technology to connect rural Mainers with volunteer attorneys. One library serving a population of about 1,200 hosted elementary students to view a real-time program on flight from the Smithsonian. This would not have been possible even five years ago.”
Lord also cautioned the committee, however, that simply connecting libraries and schools is not enough to serve our students and families today. “We need high-speed, reliable connections like the one at the Omaha Public Library that ensured one patron could Skype into three interviews with Boeing before being offered a job,” she said. “We also need upload capabilities that rival download speeds for small businesses to upload large packets of information into the cloud.”
The hearing comes just ahead of a decision from the FCC on its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to modernize the E-rate program.
Says Barbara Stripling, American Library Association (ALA) president, “Whether you are a school librarian—as both Linda Lord and I have been—or a public librarian, you know that your Internet infrastructure can either enable or stifle innovation for our nation’s 55 million K12 students, more than 1.5 million home-school students and millions more pursuing their GED or distance learning.We simply cannot allow inadequate bandwidth to be the limiting factor for what our students and our nation can achieve. E-rate is fundamental to meeting this challenge.”
According to a 2013 Pew Internet Project report, the availability of computers and Internet access now rivals book lending and reference expertise as vital library services. Seventy-seven percent of Americans say free access to computers and the Internet is a “very important” service of libraries, compared with 80 percent who say borrowing books and access to reference librarians are “very important” services.