(Special thanks to Ed for his input)
One of my goals with this blog is to step outside the “echo chamber” and talk about libraries among people who don’t work in them or use them. There are many librarian bloggers and many library-related blogs that I follow, and most of these blogs have a mostly librarian following (I’m guessing) just like any other industry or area of interest, I suppose. But what makes libraries different is that they are public institutions (unless they’re not, as in academic libraries at private schools or special libraries) and they’re meant to be accessible and funded by everyone using tax dollars allocated by local, state, and in some cases, federal government. These government allocations have become increasingly small in recent years as budgets shrink everywhere. Libraries are low on funds more often than not. Many are cutting hours, staff, resources, and programming, or closing altogether.
Often, people who use libraries appreciate them but can’t always directly help fund them with donations, etc. Some people who may not use them, appreciate them and are able to donate money when they can. Many people who don’t use them or appreciate them may think that funding them is not very important compared to other community-based, public services like education, fire and ambulance support, or the like. One reason for this may be that they believe libraries are no longer relevant in a world where information is one click away on your home computer or other device.
But here is the truth about libraries as I see it having worked in and around them for the past 8 years-
Not everyone can afford to own their own computer or other device and/or to pay for internet service. Not everyone has instant access to the Web from home. Not everyone has access to or can afford to order the latest book or movie from Amazon or Netflix. Not everyone has access to a most basic reference source like Wikipedia or other informational Web pages, not to mention online databases if they are doing research that requires accurate and verified information using citations. Not everyone has access to online job applications or resume builders or job listings, and many major companies now only accept online employment applications.
If you really believe that libraries are no longer necessary because you rely on the Internet to get all your information, then aren’t libraries more necessary and relevant than ever to those people who don’t have a computer or internet service? How will those people access the abundance of information that you have readily available to you at home or from work without places like libraries that provide computers, internet access, and WiFi for free? In library speak (and other speak, too) it’s called The Digital Divide and it creates an unlevel playing field between people who have and people who have not. While it is getting smaller, it still exists. And sure, if you have your own laptop or other device, you can take it to Starbucks or Panera Bread to use the WiFi, but you still have to buy something, and if you don’t have a computer or other device to take, then you’re still out of luck. And personally, I would not want to fill out an online job application using my iPhone. The Digital Divide also includes people who are not technologically savvy and don’t know even the basics of how to use a computer, send an email, or search the Web for all that valuable information. Libraries often offer free basic computer instruction classes. And if you think everyone already knows how to use a computer, think again and take a look at this recent thread over at Agnostic, Maybe.
Of course, public libraries are about much more than providing access to computers and the Internet and teaching people how to use them, and the people who use libraries know that. But if you don’t use the library and you haven’t been to one in a while and you really don’t know what they’re offering these days, at least know this—
If you would find it difficult to get by without your computer, device, or access to the Web, and you rely on the Internet as your primary source of information retrieval, what would you do if tomorrow you didn’t have or couldn’t afford access to either? I guess couched this way, some will see libraries as just another “entitlement” program. I see libraries as a way for people to access the information and resources needed to help them rely less on entitlements and more on their own talents and abilities. Information and knowledge is power. If we deprive even a small segment of our population from access to either, then we have failed to provide the tools necessary to level the playing field. And library services are not entitlements in the sense that you have to qualify for them in order to receive them. They are services that are available to everyone whether you need them, use them, appreciate them, or not.
There is a strong movement on the conservative right these days that promotes fiscal responsibility, individual rights and responsibilities, and personal liberty and freedom. I’m not here to take a political stand for or against the Tea Party (although I freely admit to leaning left). But without equal access to basic information and online-only services, how can the “have nots” or the “know nots” get the information and resources they need to help themselves? What better way to promote fiscal and personal responsibility than by giving public libraries the funds they need to stay open and accessible and staffed by professionals that are educated and trained to help others find and use (reliable) information? Wouldn’t this go a long way in providing “liberty and justice for all?”