Newswise — While almost all U.S. libraries now have free public Internet access, shrinking budgets and space limitations have them struggling to meet the public demand, according to a new Florida State University study.

The study, a national survey of public libraries conducted by FSU College of Information Professor John Carlo Bertot, Francis Eppes Professor Charles R. McClure and Paul T. Jaeger, manager for research development at the college's Information Use Management and Policy Institute, found that 99.6 percent of all public libraries were connected to the Internet in 2004, compared to just 21 percent in 1994.

That does not mean that all is well at the local library, however.

"It's very easy to say they don't need help anymore, but scratch below the surface and they still need help to maintain and update what they have and add more services," Bertot said. "Libraries have been on the leading edge of Internet technology, and now they are hitting a financial wall."

More than 85 percent of libraries said they were not able to meet the public demand for computers consistently or at certain times of the day. Adding to the problem is the fact that 13 percent of libraries reported a decrease in their technology budgets from the previous year, and more than 50 percent indicated their technology budgets stayed the same with no increase for inflation or demand for services.

Free Internet access is an important function of the modern library, Bertot said, noting that senior citizens, people seeking employment and those who do not have Internet access at home or work rely on their local library not only to provide access to a computer but to teach them how to use it.

"Public libraries serve a vital role in helping to bridge the digital divide," he said. "They play a critical role in keeping people from falling behind, which is important for careers and quality of life. It's a place of first and last resort for a lot of people."

The study found that rural libraries were more likely to have slower connections, fewer workstations and fewer training opportunities compared to urban libraries. Because high poverty areas are often located in urban areas, these patrons have the benefit of the highest levels of connectivity, bandwith and wireless access. But they also have more difficulty actually getting to use a computer because many urban libraries reported they consistently couldn't meet the demand. Some have been forced to set time limits on workstations - a problem if one is downloading a large file or filling out a lengthy job application.

Some libraries with wireless capability have begun to loan laptop computers for use anywhere within the library because they have neither the money nor the space to add more workstations, Bertot said. About 18 percent of libraries already have wireless Internet access and 21 percent are planning wireless access within the next year.

The study, which was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the American Library Association, highlights the fact that the online environment is an essential part of the services offered to patrons.

"The old stereotype of the shushing librarian is a misnomer," Bertot said. "Libraries are very dynamic places. They still have building-based collections, but libraries have ventured well beyond their walls. That is a trend that's here to stay."