In the Information Age, no institution is more important than that which has been historically responsible for making the world's information accessible to the masses: the public library. But the revolution in information technology is leaving libraries in the dust. Even here in Massachusetts, where Boston and Franklin claim the nation's first public library, libraries are struggling to restock their shelves and keep their doors open, let alone take advantage of new information technology.

In the Information Age, no institution is more important than that which has been historically responsible for making the world's information accessible to the masses: the public library. But the revolution in information technology is leaving libraries in the dust. Even here in Massachusetts, where Boston and Franklin claim the nation's first public library, libraries are struggling to restock their shelves and keep their doors open, let alone take advantage of new information technology.


A study released this week by the American Library Association found that the number of public Internet terminals in libraries remains unchanged since 2002. Just one library in five reports it has enough computers to meet the demand.


Those who have multiple computers with broadband access at home or at the office may not see the need. But for others, the library's Internet access is essential to their ability to keep up and get ahead. Students need to go online to do research and complete homework assignments. Job-hunters need it to search for openings, prepare resumes and correspond through e-mail. The applicant limited to snail-mail is as much at a disadvantage in today's job market as those limited to hand-written cover letters a generation ago.


The ALA study underlines the importance of filling this need for those who can't use the Internet at home, whether they are poor or simply live too far from a cable or phone line that can deliver broadband. Seventy-three percent of the librarians surveyed reported they are the only source of free Internet access in their communities.


The staffing problems libraries in Massachusetts and elsewhere play into this as well. Even if a library has computers and Internet access, no one can use them when the doors are locked.


Government support of libraries is essential for them to fulfill their mission, and funding at the state, federal and local level has been inadequate. But individuals and businesses can help as well. How many people and how many companies have perfectly good computers gathering dust because something better came along? How many people have technical skills they could contribute to their town library?


Every library ought to have computers available. They also should be investing in wifi, so that those with laptops can go online without tying up one of the library's desktop units. It's up to librarians and their volunteers and supporters to come up with feasible technology plans - and it's up to elected officials to provide the resources needed for the libraries to adapt their historic mission to a new century.