Libraries: A Source of Free Technology in Tough Times

By Daniel A. Freeman |

With news of library closings and service reductions coming from all corners of the nation, it seems like in the face of spending cuts, library services are sometimes seen as expendable. Anyone who has ever worked at a public library and probably almost everyone who has ever used a public library knows that this is not the case. Unfortunately, public budget decisions are often made by politicians, and we all know how in touch they are with public sentiment, and how much if affects their decisions.

We are already seeing libraries around the country being forced to close or cut back services. The strong reaction this has elicited from many patrons (I’m going to be optimistic and avoid the term “former patrons”), particularly in Philadelphia.

Public libraries are crucial to their communities, especially when it comes to technology. According to January’s issue of Library Technology Reports:

  • 98.9 percent of public library branches offer public Internet.
  • In 2007–2008, 100 percent of rural high-poverty outlets provide public Internet access, a significant increase from 85.7 percent the previous year.
  • 65.2 percent of public library branches offer wireless Internet access, up from 54.2 percent in 2006–2007.
  • 72.5 percent of library branches report that they are the only provider of free public computer and Internet access in their communities. This is more common in rural communities, where 82.5 percent of libraries report that this is the case.

I think that last point is worth repeating. Almost three quarters of public library branches are the only source of free computer and Internet access in their communities. Lest anyone think these findings are distorted to support some sort of agenda, even the mainstream media has reported similar trends. Of course, this is all in addition to the fact that the demand for library services is currently going through the roof, as reported here by CBS, here by NBC and here by the Boston Globe.

We are dealing with one of the worst economic crises in history, and the first to occur during the Internet age. Unemployment is at a 16 year high, and these days, the Internet is an essential tool for job-hunting. Broadband access in one’s home can cost fifty dollars a month. So at a time like this, how could anyone argue that the only free source of Internet access in their community is expendable?

As a profession, we’ve never been shy about organizing. The admirable effort put forth by ordinary citizens in Philadelphia did not solve the library’s budget problems, but it did stop a number of branches from closing completely. There’s no question that the economic crisis will force all of us to make some sacrifices, but through action, we can try to ensure that we don’t make any that we don’t have to.