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TL v61n4:American Library Association
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Tennessee Libraries

Volume 61 Number 4



The American Library Association and Its Response to the Broadband Initiative
The Future of Library Service


Christy Brayton, M.Ed

Reference Department

Charles C. Sherrod Library, East Tennessee State University 


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Knowledge brings power to a society.  Just as widespread literacy brought about the advancement of knowledge for society, the ubiquitous spread of Internet access has brought about the expansion of information sharing.  In “A Nation Online:  Entering the Broadband Age,” the U.S. Department of Commerce’s 2004 report on Internet use in the United States, about 60 percent of U.S. households were online as compared to 20 percent in 1997.  Additionally, 40.4 percent of urban Internet connected households have broadband connections, and 24.7 percent of rural Internet connected households have broadband access.

Throughout human history, there have been disparities between the haves and the have nots, and the disparities between the people with broadband access and those without it are no different.  TheAmerican Library Association (ALA) reported in 2009 that the library provides Internet connectivity for around 73 percent of those without access at home (p.  iv).   The public library has became an equalizer between people who have Internet usage at home and those who do not, and by meeting the needs of the underprivileged, it has also served to demonstrate the definitive need for people to have affordable access to high-speed Internet in their homes. 

The library has always recognized that information and access to information is what drives a society’s advancement in knowledge and understanding.  Richard E. Rubin (2004) discusses how the librarian’s role as disseminator of information evolved in the early 20th century with the growth of computer technology that changed the way libraries organized access to information for their patrons (p.  34). This focus of providing equal access to information for all library users has been a central issue for the public library in recent years, and the American Library Association (ALA) has given several guidelines and policies summarizes their expectations for libraries regarding equal access to information for all public library users and how to best overcome barriers to information access. 

The ALA was founded in 1876 primarily to develop educational standards for librarian training (Rubin, 2004, p.  278). It grew by responding to the need for establishing educational support for public schools and higher education, namely by providing useful and current information access for students and teachers (p.  283). However, with the late 19th century’s emphasis on social reform, the public library became an institution dedicated to helping better educate the underprivileged members of the community (p.  287). With their response to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, the American Library Association became focused on the library’s commitment to supplying equal access to information for all (p.  294). This commitment explains the ALA’s current response to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s (ARRA) Broadband stimulus programs.  The ALA has issued several policy briefs and library response guidelines to outline the appropriate measures librarians need to undertake to help bridge the digital divide.

The “digital divide” is defined as the gap between the Internet access haves and have-nots, the fact that access to the Internet remains to be lower for the economically disadvantaged.  Paul Attewell (2001) believes that the digital divide is just “the latest effort to encourage our reluctant social and political leaders to ameliorate inequality” while ignoring more complicated areas of deficiencies among the poor (p. 257).  He sees the digital divide as just one of the many results of educational inequalities that exist for the economically disadvantaged, like a shortage of highly qualified teachers, overcrowded classrooms, and a need for adequate help at home. Computers and quality Internet access are just another resource for education that poorer students lack in their schools and homes.  However, the broadband Initiatives of the ARRA aim to equalize these disparities not only at school, but also in the home and the community.  The broadband stimulus funds are specifically intended to help provide more Americans with connection to high-speed Internet access.  By connecting underserved American citizens to broadband Internet, The Executive Office of the President’s National Economic Council in “Recovery Act Investments in Broadband” (2009) contends that the government will help “lay the foundation for long-term regional economic development and foster a digitally literate workforce that can compete in the new knowledge-based economy” (p. i).  The investments will focus on two areas:  funding for public institutions, such as hospitals, schools, and libraries and investments in private companies that provide Internet access for rural communities outside typical areas of high-speed Internet access (p. i).  The central purpose of this funding is to stimulate economic growth due to the recent economic recession, but its long term implications for expanding the United States’ Internet infrastructure is critical.  As Andy Carvin (2006) insists, America needs to expand funding to technological and educational advances not only to equalize the digital divide, but also to maintain their economic status as a world leader (“Off the Political Radar,” para. 1). Without the long term goal of increasing broadband Internet access across the country, the broadband stimulus funding remains a temporary solution to the permanent problem of keeping up with global advances in digital technology.

Considering the library’s commitment to the value of educational opportunities, it is no surprise that the ALA (2009) also supports the country’s need to establish broadband access to all (p. 4).  One of the most important concerns is the appropriate application of government funding from the broadband initiatives.  An advocate for the broadband stimulus acts, Geoffrey H. Fletcher (2010), is encouraging educators, including teachers, administrators, and librarians, to organize specific information relating to the deficiencies In our school systems and communities in order to motivate new government initiatives to provide funding where it is needed (p.  12). For librarians, Norman Oder (2009) explains, the need for broadband access is crucial since the public library serves as an “anchor institution” for the community, meaning the library often serves the members in a community who are underprivileged as well as serving the broad population of students, from school-age children to graduate students (“ALA:  Broadband Stimulus Programs Should Take Libraries More Into Account,” para. 1).  Without proper planning and tangible services to fulfill the needs of library users, federal funding will not be appropriately allocated or even adequately dispersed.  After the release of the ARRA’s broadband initiative in early 2009, the ALA Washington Office (2009) issued a brief outline of what libraries need to do to receive their share of the funding (“Ten Things You Can Do…,” para. 3).  In order for libraries to benefit from the initiative, they will need to evaluate their future broadband needs and work with public and private organizations within their communities to apply strategies for obtaining funding (ALA Washington Office, 2009).  Evaluating the long-term applications of funding is a crucial part of managing the public library’s computer and Internet resources, especially considering ever-changing digital technology. Richard E. Rubin (2004) emphasizes that the library must examine their motives for upgrading computer resources, to evaluate their patrons’ need for computer services over their institution’s desire to obtain the most sophisticated or latest technology (p. 116).  By focusing on the patrons’ current needs and anticipated demands for broadband services, the library should be able to design an effective plan they can adapt to the recent government initiatives.

As the library identifies the needs of their users, it is important that they look outside of their institutional needs to highlight their community’s needs for broadband service.  The ALA Washington Office’s response to the ARRA broadband stimulus funding (2009) suggests that libraries work with other institutions in their community to discover the areas where broadband expansion are most needed to help members of the community (“Ten Things You Can Do…,” para. 5-6).  Working together as a community, the public and private institutions including the library should be better able to develop strategies for obtaining adequate funding from the proposed government broadband funding.  The ALA Office for Information Technology (Hendrix, 2010) also maintains that collaboration between libraries and various community institutions, as well as library users, will provide the increased demand needed to stimulate new computer and Internet technologies, which will in turn, propel government funding to meet these needs (p.  15). In order to confirm that digital technology is necessary to the increased economic development of our country, an adequate show of usage by the community’s citizens must be demonstrated.

As of October 2010, all of the Broadband USA funding has been awarded to various institutions and state organizations, including public libraries.  Amounts were determined according to grant proposals and awarded to many applicants.  In the state of Tennessee specifically, DeltaCom, Inc. was awarded more than $9.3 million to fund the East Tennessee Middle Mile Fiber Broadband Project, which will connect over 50 community anchor institutions in five eastern Tennessee communities, including Knoxville, Chattanooga, Bristol, and Johnson City (“DeltaCom, Inc. : East TN Middle Mile Project Fact Sheet,” para. 1-2).  Many of the community anchor institutions are public libraries, and the broadband network will benefit an estimated 34,000 households and 500 businesses in eastern Tennessee (para. 2).  Another award went to the University Corporation for Advanced Internet Development under the project name “United States Unified Community Anchor Network (US UCAN) (“University Corp. for Advanced Internet Development Fact Sheet,” para. 1).  Over $62 million will connect educational, research, healthcare, public safety, and governmental institutions across 50 states, including Tennessee (para. 2-3).  This project will connect 97,000 institutions by providing them with high speed broadband using state networking (para. 2-3).  Included in these institutions are public and academic libraries (para. 2).  Finally, an amount has been awarded to the Tennessee State Library and Archives to expand 29 public computer centers, primarily located in public libraries, with the purpose of offering Tennessee’s underprivileged citizens high speed broadband access (“TN State Library and Archives Fact Sheet,” para. 1-3).  This project titled “Bridging the Gap: Bringing Broadband Technology to Tennessee’s Impoverished and Unemployed,” has plans to more than double the amount of computer workstations at Tennessee libraries and to increase the connection speed to a minimum of 6 Mbps at all participating libraries (para. 3).  Additionally, the funding will offer computer training from library instructors with a goal of assisting as many as 200,00 Tennessee users (para. 3).  In this way, Tennessee libraries, as well as many other ALA-supported institutions across the United States, can help bridge the second digital divide that is facing many library computer users.  By supporting users’ Internet technology training, the library is advancing digital literacy in communities.

One of the most significant uses of digital technology in the 21st century has been the use of information technology for educational purposes. The library has considered educational support to be part of their commitment to literacy and learning, and part of education is learning how to access information effectively, especially in the ever-changing content of the Internet.  The ALA (2009) observes that academic have inspired the public library to accept responsibility towards teaching library users how to obtain information over the Internet and how to effectively use and evaluate that information (p.  36). Just as important as securing broadband access to library computers for the community is the training on how to use the Internet successfully for those who seek information. Paul Attewell (2001) has identified computer illiteracy as the “second digital divide” between the well-informed Internet user and the untrained Internet user, namely the differences in how underprivileged children use the Internet versus how more affluent children use educational technology (p.  257). To help address this barrier to equal use, libraries can provide better service for their patrons by making computer training available for their patrons.

On the other side of the divide, Jennifer C. Hendrix (2010) of the ALA’s Office of Information Technology Policy has emphasized the library’s need to consider the differing ways in which “digital learners” process information (p.  6). With the explosion of Web 2.0 educational innovations, the Internet has not only transformed the way we access information, but also changed the format and creation of information as well.  Web 2.0 applications to the classroom have altered the more traditionally passive learning environment to a more personal, socialized collaboration of education. Web 2.0 innovations have changed the way people stay connected and also have altered the library’s information dissemination through the reformation of educational media and information storage and creation. The constant connectivity and active sharing of Web 2.0 users has made the ALA and the library consider their traditional role within the community. The library has been transformed into a gathering place over the 21st century, providing not only services, but also connectivity to others inside and outside of the community.

 As our world becomes increasingly globally connected, the need for broadband Internet access becomes greater, and the necessity of the library’s access to up-to-date digital technology becomes apparent.  While support for the community’s reception of broadband funding is important, it is equally important for the library to respond to the computer literacy needs of their patrons and the innovative ways that communities use the Internet for information access, education, and connectivity. The more conventional insularity of the community library is challenged by the need to communicate with other community organizations, not only with schools, but also with other social institutions and their users, to examine the future needs of the population they serve.  The same collaboration used to address the community’s access to broadband funding will be needed to propel the future development of digital learning and electronic access within the 21st century library (Jennifer C. Hendrix, ALA Office of Information Technology Policy Brief No. 2, 2010).  The rapid evolution of Web 2.0 technology has been mostly due to its ubiquitous adoption. Additionally, as more and more of society realizes the economic and social value of Web 2.0 technology and the necessity of universal broadband access, the library will need to transform itself into more than just an institution that preserves and maintains the collection of information resources; it will need to become a center for “collaboration between the library and the user” (p.  16). The library’s future In the 21st century will be as advocates for information technology and equitable access, with its organizational goals realized through the library’s partnership with its users and its community. 


American Library Association  (2009).  Libraries: the place of opportunity. Retrieved March 14, 2010, from

Attewell, Paul. (2001, July).The first and second digital divides.  Sociology of Education, 74(3), 252-257.  Retrieved March 14, 2010, from

 Broadband Technologies Opportunities Program. (2011). DeltaCom, Inc.: east tennessee’s middle mile fiber broadband project fact sheet. BroadbandUSA. Retrieved December 8, 2011, from

 Broadband Technologies Opportunities Program. (2010, July).  Tennessee state library and archives: bridging the gap: bringing broadband technology to tennessee’s impoverished and unemployed fact sheet. BroadbandUSA. Retrieved December 8, 2011, from .


Broadband Technologies Opportunities Program. (2011, July). University corporation for advanced internet development: united states unified community anchor network fact sheet. BroadbandUSA. Retrieved December 8, 2011, from .


Carvin, Andy.  (2006, March).  The gap.  School Library Journal.  Retrieved March 14, 2010, from National Economic Council Executive Office of the President.  (2009, December). Recovery act investments in broadband:  leveraging federal dollars to create jobs and connect America.  Retrieved March 14, 2010, from

Fletcher, Geoffrey H.  (2010, March).  Was I wrong on Obama?  THE Journal, 37, 10-12. Retrieved from

Hendrix, Jennifer C.  (2010, February).  Checking out the future. Perspectives from the library community on information technology and 21st-century libraries. ALA Office of Information Technology,  Policy Brief No. 2.  Retrieved March 14, 2010, from

Oder, Norman.  (2009, December).  ALA broadband stimulus programs should take libraries more into account.  Library Journal. Retrieved from

Rubin, Richard E.  (2004). Foundations of library and information science.  New York:  Neal Schuman Publishers, Inc.

U.S. Department of Commerce.  (2004, September).  A nation online:  entering the broadband age.  Retrieved from

 Additional Resources

Broadband USA.  (2011).

The online portal to request grant-funding for broadband infrastructure projects in rural areas via its Broadband Initiatives Program (BIP) from the Broadband Initiative 2009. NTIA is providing grants to fund comprehensive broadband infrastructure projects, public computer centers and sustainable broadband adoption projects via its Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP).

TRAM Broadband Team, State of Tennessee.  (2009). Tennessee Recovery Act Management Broadband Prioritized Projects. The State of Tennessee’s scoring for initiated grant applications from the BIP and NTIA for broadband-related grants and loans proposals.

NetTN. (2011) .NetTN is the agency that is addressing the connectivity needs of any state agency, local government, institutions of higher education, K-12, library, eHealth, 911, or non-profits, based on their assessed needs from the Broadband Initiative.



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