Public libraries continue to lead as a provider of free access to the web and computers.

Broadband through public libraries enables millions of people every year to have access to essential digital resources. This position of being a community access point for internet access – particularly broadband access – appears to be of greater importance now than ever before for all citizens in North Carolina and throughout the entire country.

People from all walks of life have relied on this service since the 1990s to look for jobs, find health care, or read the latest news. Basically, Internet access at libraries has evolved from a rare commodity into a core service.

American Library Association (ALA) President Barbara Stripling commented last week on President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, which she said focuses on many themes that form the basis of library services in communities across the country.

According to Stripling, these services include the need to create and bolster ladders of opportunity; early learning as one of the best investments we can make in our future; and connecting students to high-capacity broadband as an immediate priority for supporting 21st century education.

“All of these are core to the library mission of ensuring equitable access to information, technology and learning in the digital age,” said Stripling. “It is vital for policy makers at all levels to recognize libraries are part of the solution in achieving our shared vision. Libraries are a critical partner in opening the door to equality in opportunity.”

According to the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), Internet access is the most sought-after public library service in the United States and is used by more than half of all visitors. Furthermore, public libraries offer broadband Internet connectivity at speeds that often exceed what is available at work or in the home.

There are 77 county, regional, and municipal library systems in North Carolina. On any given day, visitors stop by a reference desk at these facilities wanting to use the computers or connect to Wi-Fi as a guest. Annually, nearly 10 million people use internet-connected computers at a public library in North Carolina.

Nationally, according to the ALA, 77 million people used the public library for Internet access last year, noting that residential broadband remains out of reach for many people in these communities across the country. Because of the increasing reliance upon and need for libraries to use broadband telecommunications services, ALA follows broadband deployment and build-out issues closely, focusing especially on accessibility, affordability and universal service concerns.

Stripling said libraries provide the vital “wrap-around” support that allows learning to happen within and beyond the school day, especially for non-traditional students. Public libraries, she added, are the digital lifeline for millions of people – providing essential access to people of all ages so they have access to the technology, the digital educational resources, and the skills necessary to participate in the collaborative and networked economy of the future.

“Providing all libraries and schools with high-capacity broadband Internet connections is a wise investment in the nation’s future; broadband is the essential ingredient that brings all these innovations and applications to life,” added Stripling, also noting the importance of E-Rate reform in 2014.

The American Library Association is the oldest and largest library association in the world, with approximately 57,000 members in academic, public, school, government, and special libraries.