Networks, Knowledge, and Power in U.S. Public Libraries

Published on October 9th, 2019

Written by Colin Rhinesmith, Assistant Professor in the Simmons University School of Library and Information Science

In many communities across the United States, particularly in rural areas, the public library is often the only place where people can gain access to the Internet.1 It is also true that in many rural communities, commercial spaces allow people to connect to their wireless networks. However, unlike public libraries, these for-profit spaces do not have trained information professionals on site who can help people connect to the Internet, receive digital literacy training, and develop a “sense of comfort”2 with networked technology.

Thomas J. Harrison Pryor Public Library – Pryor, Oklahoma. Photo by Colin Rhinesmith

Unfortunately, public library workers often lack knowledge about their library’s network infrastructure, which can be a problem particularly when the infrastructure breaks down thus becoming “visible” as Star and Ruhleder3 theorized.

In response our research team is studying how access to broadband measurement data can be useful for public libraries, particularly in challenging situations like these. Using participatory design research techniques we are developing an open source broadband measurement system with public library staff, managers, and their information technology counterparts. The goal of our project is to provide public libraries with the data, information, and knowledge they need to respond to their communities’ digital demands.4

In our fieldwork with public libraries in communities across the country, from Alaska to Florida and many places in-between, our team has sought to gain insights from library workers to understand how their library’s Internet service helps people in their communities.

Hollis Public Library in Hollis, Alaska. Photo by Colin Rhinesmith

Participants in our study have told us that patrons use computers “for everything from accessing their email to printing airline and concert tickets,” as one public librarian in Westchester County, New York explained. This story was echoed at almost every other library we visited. Patrons rely on public library Internet networks to print reports, use Facebook, do school work, study for GREs and MCATs, and for completing other work during business hours.

In Pasco County, Florida, one librarian explained, “we have a lot of people that have never had to use a computer before, and now society is gearing them towards using a computer… especially since the demand by companies and the government is going that way.” Other participants in our study told us that patrons use their library because it has the fastest internet in town. Library workers believe this is true, but they often don’t have data to back this up.

In other communities, public library workers expressed their frustration with not knowing more about their broadband networks. As one public library worker in Bennington, Vermont explained,

I don’t know if the connectivity challenge that we have in here is because of the infrastructure or the machines themselves… I don’t know how old these machines are, and they can’t run—I mean, my knowledge of this is not as… But the biggest complaint is that they’re so slow. So I don’t know if it’s the bandwidth or if it’s the machines itself.

Public Access Computers at the Bennington Free Library in Bennington, Vermont. Photo by Colin Rhinesmith

Through our research we have learned that broadband measurement data can help public library workers determine the source of network problems, which ultimately helps them to better support their communities. One librarian in Bennington, Vermont underscored this point:

We want to empower the public to be able to use technology responsibly. But I also feel like librarians in the field—public librarians—if we were empowered a little bit more to understand what the heck we were using, we could do things more efficiently and more quickly and empower the users better…You know, I don’t know if the connectivity challenge that we have in here is because of the infrastructure or the machines themselves.

Knowledge, Power, and Community

Public libraries do more than just provide access to books, computers, and the Internet. Libraries also serve their communities in times of crisis. For example, following the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, by police in Ferguson, Missouri, the Ferguson Public Library remained open while many other businesses and local schools closed due to the civil unrest. Ferguson Public Library Director, Scott Bonner wanted people to know that their public library was a “safe haven”5 for their community.

Scholars have also written about the important role that public library workers play during natural disasters.6 Participants in our study at the E.P. Foster Public Library in Ventura County, California told us that their staff handed out face masks to help prevent smoke inhalation during the Thomas Fire7 in December 2017, which stopped just short of their library on Main Street.

The E.P. Foster Public Library in Ventura County, California. Photo by Colin Rhinesmith

Another librarian there re-iterated what many other participants across the country shared with us—access to broadband measurement data can help public library workers support their communities’ growing demand for broadband-enabled devices, platforms, and services. As one librarian explained,

I guess it’s just knowledge. With knowledge comes sort of the power to fix hopefully the things that we can fix. And some of them just you can’t. I mean, it is what it is, but I think it’s just being able to—so to disseminate that information to all the staff, not just me. Because I’m a true believer that whatever information I know, the rest of the staff need to know it too. And I think if they know that here are some of the challenges, or here’s how things are working, then it helps sort of understand and help us help customers in a better or more productive way.

This is why our research team is using participatory design methods not only because of its value in enabling more informed users of networked infrastructure but also in its attempt to address “the thornier issues of control in the workplace.”8 The Scandinavian approach to participatory design focused on technology design to promote workplace democracy.9 Similarly, our project is concerned with enabling public library workers with the information they need to better support their organizations and empower their communities in their engagement with broadband network infrastructure.

1 John Carlo Bertot, Brian Real, and Paul T. Jaeger, “Public Libraries Building Digital Inclusive Communities: Data and Findings from the 2013 Digital Inclusion Survey,” Library Quarterly 86, no. 3 (July 2016): 270–89; John Carlo Bertot, Charles R. McClure, and Paul T. Jaeger, “The Impacts of Free Public Internet Access on Public Library Patrons and Communities,” Library Quarterly 78, no. 3 (July 2008): 285–301; Brian Real, John Carlo Bertot, and Paul T. Jaeger, “Rural Public Libraries and Digital Inclusion: Issues and Challenges,” Information Technology & Libraries 33, no. 1 (March 2014): 6–24.

2 Colin Rhinesmith, “Free Library Hot Spots: Supporting Broadband Adoption in Philadelphia’s Low-Income Communities,” International Journal of Communication, no. 6 (2012): 2529- 2554.

3 Susan Leigh Star and Karen Ruhleder, “Steps Toward an Ecology of Infrastructure: Design and Access for Large Information Spaces,” Information Systems Research 7, no.1 (1996): 111.



6 Jamie Ellis, “Lessons Learned: The Recovery of a Research Collection after Hurricane Katrina,” Collection Building 26, no. 4 (November 2007): 108–11; Maureen Garvey, “Serving A Public Library Community After A Natural Disaster: Recovering From ‘Hurricane Sandy,’” Journal of the Leadership & Management Section 11, no. 2 (Spring 2015): 22–31; Michele Stricker, “Ports in a Storm: The Role of the Public Library in Times of Crisis,” Collaborative Librarianship, no. 1 (2019): 11.


8 Joan Greenbaum, “A Design of One’s Own: Toward Participatory Design in the United States,” In Participatory Design: Principles and Practices, eds. Doug Schuler and Aki Namioka (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1993), 27-40. 

9 Pelle Ehn and Morten Kyng, “The Collective Resource Approach to Systems Design,” In Computers and Democracy: A Scandinavian Challenge, eds. Gro Bjerknes, Pelle Ehn, and Morten Kyng (Aldershot, UK: Avebury), 17-57; Finn Kensing and Jeanette Blomberg, “Participatory Design: Issues and Concerns.” Computer Supported Cooperative Work: The Journal of Collaborative Computing 7, no. 3/4 (August 1998): 167–85; Philip Kraft and Jørgen P. Bansler, “The Collective Resource Approach: The Scandinavian Experience,” Scandinavian Journal of Information Systems 6, no. 1 (1993): 71-84.

The research is funded by a grant from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services (award #: LG-71-18-0110-18)

Bio: Colin Rhinesmith is an assistant professor in the Simmons University School of Library and Information Science. His work is focused on the social, community, and policy aspects of information and communication technology. He was a Google Policy Fellow and an adjunct research fellow with New America’s Open Technology Institute. He was also a faculty research fellow with the Benton Foundation and a faculty associate with the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. Rhinesmith received his Ph.D. in library and information science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.