We think of today’s youth as constantly connected. Smartphones serve as extra appendages, and the coolness factor goes up for whoever discovers the latest mobile app first.
More than ever, education is contingent upon Internet access. No problem, because today’s teens are digital natives, right? Wrong. Even if they are, not all have Internet access at home. How are teens who rely on library services being affected by public library budget cuts?
Recent data shows that students are usually compiling bibliographies, outlining papers, and synthesizing research between 8 and 10 p.m. during the school week. In other words, students tend to work when most libraries are closed.
How do they compensate? According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, many students are using free WiFi at McDonald’s restaurants to do schoolwork. There are almost as many WiFi access points in McDonald’s (12,000) as there are in public libraries (15,000) in the United States.
This trend is potentially detrimental to students. Obviously, if they have questions, a librarian isn’t available to help. We won’t even discuss the other negative impacts of spending hours at a fast food restaurant.
Defining the gap
We work as information literacy librarians and content developers for EasyBib, an online citation and research tool, and its new platform, ResearchReady. We estimate that our user base represents about 50 percent of the U.S. student population. Our research confirms what news outlets already report: There is a gap between when students need libraries and when libraries are open.
According to a 2010 Pew Internet study, one third of American households with an annual income under $30,000 did not have an Internet broadband connection at home. At the same time, many public libraries facing massive budget cuts reduced their hours when neighborhoods needed them most. Particularly in urban areas, community needs have shifted dramatically since the economic downturn, and more people rely on library resources. Additionally, many rural libraries are often closed before students even get out of school.
The Arkoma Public Library in rural Oklahoma, for example, was the source of over 1,500 visits to EasyBib during the 2011–2012 school year. But the library often closes between the hours of 5 and 7 p.m. By contrast, Seattle Public Library patrons made approximately 1,000 visits to EasyBib during the 2011–2012 school year. During the week of June 10–16, when EasyBib usage was at its peak there, Seattle libraries were in operation until 8 p.m.—pretty decent in terms of open hours. Nonetheless, neither setting could help students during their prime research hours of 8 to 10 p.m.
What are the trade-offs?
One could argue that this issue could be resolved by keeping the library open later. Given the costs of running a library, this is easier said than done. Keeping the lights on, paying staff, and running computers for two more hours every day adds up quickly—but it might be worth it to serve this key constituency better. Libraries face the difficult choice of weighing the costs against the benefits of staying open to serve a small but critical group of patrons. What are the trade-offs?
Finding a way to keep library doors open isn’t always easy. We urge local governments, libraries, and communities to consider all students and their research needs when proposing budgets and closing hours.
Emily Gover and Caity Selleck are information literacy librarians and content developers for EasyBib and its new platform, ResearchReady. Emily received her MSIS from the University at Albany and is a former academic librarian at Berry College in Georgia. Caity received her MLIS from Queens College and has worked at the Queens Public Library and the New York Transit Museum.