New America Study Reveals Race, Wealth Disparities in Library Access During Pandemic

With library branches closed or offering limited in-person services during much of 2020, that has often meant shifting to virtual offerings. But many people faced challenges accessing those online resources, according to “Public Libraries and the Pandemic: Digital Shifts and Disparities to Overcome,” a report published this month by New America, a Washington D.C.–based public policy think tank.

New America LogoDuring the COVID-19 pandemic, public libraries have worked to safely continue providing their communities with access to learning opportunities and information. With library branches closed or offering limited in-person services during much of 2020, that has often meant shifting to virtual offerings. But many people faced challenges accessing those online resources, according to “Public Libraries and the Pandemic: Digital Shifts and Disparities to Overcome,” a report published this month by New America, a Washington D.C.–based public policy think tank.

“Results from the study show a meaningful shift toward the use of online resources and high levels of goodwill for public libraries and what they make available online. But the study also illuminates a host of significant challenges for libraries to overcome, particularly in improving their outreach and services to people of color, people in low-income households, and those who do not have adequate access to the internet at home,” the executive summary of the report explains.

The large survey of the general public (2,620 respondents) was fielded in early fall 2020. To add context, the study authors conducted a separate survey of 118 educators and professionals at community-based organizations, and one-on-one interviews with librarians in a variety of geographic regions. Short profiles of pandemic programming at four libraries—the Mandel Public Library, West Palm Beach, FL; the Salt Lake City Public Library (SLCPL); the Princeton Public Library, NJ; and the Catawba County Library System, Charlotte, NC—illustrate how libraries are working to address these challenges.

“We’ve been looking at [public] libraries as part of the education ecosystem for quite a while at New America,” said study author Lisa Guernsey, director of the think tank’s Teaching, Learning, and Tech program and senior advisor to the Early and Elementary Education Policy program. “When the pandemic hit, there were just these huge questions surfacing about how people could rely on the library—people of all ages, but certainly [K–12] students, college students. How were they getting [broadband] access if they didn’t have the ability to go to the library for Wi-Fi? And we were also curious about whether there was an awareness of the plethora” of ebooks, databases, streaming services, and other electronic resources that libraries offer.

A significant majority of the general public (82 percent) said that they had used a public library prior to the pandemic, and 57 percent said that they had also used their library after the onset of COVID-19, either in person or online. Some 68 percent said that they were aware that their public library offered online resources. However, when asked what their library was doing to encourage use during the pandemic, fewer than 25 percent were aware of services such as curbside delivery or Wi-Fi outside of the building. (There are currently no national estimates regarding the number of public libraries that began offering these services during the pandemic.)

The survey revealed “disparities in access to and awareness of public library resources” across variables including age, income, and racial identity. Wealthier households were more likely to be aware of online resources and to have used a library’s app or website. Of respondents who reported household incomes between $50,000 to $99,000, 31 percent said they had used their library’s website or app prior to the pandemic, and 42 percent said they had used these services during the pandemic. Of households with incomes over $100,000, 34 percent used library apps and websites pre-pandemic, and 46 percent used these services during the pandemic.

By contrast, respondents with household incomes below $50,000 reported much lower usage. Only 22 percent of these respondents said that they used a library app or website prior to the pandemic. And only 33 percent had taken advantage of these online services since the pandemic began.

The report notes that the responses to this question “cannot be used to draw objective conclusions about whether or not there are more often libraries that offer resources in proximity to households with higher income levels,” but the study’s authors shared a couple of hypotheses.

“Informally, we have a number of ideas…about why those results came back the way they did,” said report author Sabia Prescott, policy analyst with the Education Policy program at New America. “Folks with higher incomes, folks who are white, folks who have a number of typical privileges, face the fewest barriers in accessing libraries because [the buildings are located] where they live.” Separately, the study authors believe higher levels of digital literacy could also be a factor enabling these same patrons to navigate online library resources with few problems.

Additionally, when asked what challenges they faced in accessing their library’s online resources, only 6 percent of white respondents said “I don’t always have access to a device,” compared with 10 percent of Black respondents, 11 percent of Asian respondents, and 12 percent of Hispanic respondents. And, only 5 percent of white respondents said that data caps were an issue, compared with 9 percent of Black respondents, 10 percent of Asian respondents, and 11 percent of Hispanic respondents.

Fifteen percent of respondents said that they had lost their primary source of broadband access when their public library branch closed. These respondents “were much more likely to be male, to live in an urban area, to say there is a language other than English spoken in their home, and to be a person of color,” the report states. In a check all that apply question, 35 percent of these respondents said they used internet access for work or professional development, 31 percent said they used it for academic research or K–12 assignments, and 20 percent said they used it to assist another adult who doesn’t have a library card of their own. And 52 percent said that they use internet access for personal enjoyment.

By contrast, of the 85 percent of respondents who did have alternate access to broadband during the pandemic, 77 percent said that they use internet access for personal enjoyment, while only 21 percent said work or professional development, and only 22 percent said academic research or school assignments.



There have been positive developments involving improved access to broadband in recent weeks. In February, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced the Emergency Broadband Benefit program, a $3.2 billion program that will soon provide discounts of up to $50 per month for eligible households to purchase home broadband. And the recently passed American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 includes $7.172 billion in Emergency Connectivity Fund money, some of which will reimburse libraries for the cost of loanable Wi-Fi hotspots, laptops, and tablets.

The report suggests making the Emergency Broadband Benefit program permanent, and advises policymakers to continue expanding the E-Rate program and to require internet service providers to be more transparent about costs and fees. Enabling municipalities to provide internet service is also suggested as a way to lower costs for consumers.

Policymakers can also encourage collaboration between community-based organizations, libraries, and schools by developing grant programs or other incentives, while funding for needs assessments and other research could enable public libraries to examine how their facilities and services are used within communities that are marginalized or underserved, the report argues. And the report’s authors suggest that funding for tech-support programs at libraries—such as the “digital navigators” program at SLCPL—could help improve digital literacy at the local level via one-on-one troubleshooting, mentorship, and guidance.

For libraries, the authors suggest increasing outreach and communications efforts to make everyone in their communities aware of the library’s online and in-person offerings. Specifically, targeting low-income households; Black, Hispanic, and Asian households; and patrons whose first language is not English. Separately, the report suggests experimenting with mobile offerings to reach patrons who don’t live near a branch, and establishing tech-support and mentoring programs such as SLCPL’s digital navigators to help patrons build digital literacy.

Educators and leaders of community-based organizations are encouraged to develop deeper partnerships with local libraries to help build awareness of library resources within the community. For this to happen, the report notes, library leaders should be included in strategic planning for programs and services.

“I really hope this report encourages more faith and more material support for our public institutions,” said study author Claire Park, program associate with New America's Open Technology Institute, noting that currently, many people need library computers and broadband access to get help signing up for government benefits or signing up to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

“Libraries aren’t immune from the inequities of broader society, but they might have a significant role in addressing” those inequities, Prescott said.

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Matt Enis


Matt Enis ( is Senior Editor, Technology for Library Journal.

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