When libraries lose, the digital divide widens

Last month, thanks to a trigger provision in the state budget, California libraries were defunded. As in, all state funding was eliminated. This is particularly hard on rural libraries because they have less local support to fall back on (and often less prosperous residents, so private funding is less likely).

For comfortably-off people who use public libraries, especially to borrow books, this is an annoyance and an inconvenience. For library patrons who are on tight budgets, this is a hardship. But for the working and non-working poor patrons, this is a disaster. A commenter at Metafilter brilliantly sketches a hypothetical patron’s typical usage (which is probably not all that hypothetical):

If you can take yourself out of your first world techie social media smart-shoes for a second then imagine this: you’re 53 years old, you’ve been in prison from 20 to 26, you didn’t finish high school, and you have a grandson who you’re now supporting because your daughter is in jail. You’re lucky, you have a job at the local Wendy’s. You have to fill out a renewal form for government assistance which has just been moved online as a cost saving measure (this isn’t hypothetical, more and more municipalities are doing this now). You have a very limited idea of how to use a computer, you don’t have Internet access, and your survival (and the survival of your grandson) is contingent upon this form being filled out correctly.

He ends with a concise description of what libraries are up against:

We’re one of the few places left in our society where a great cross-section of people regularly interact, and also one of the few places that is free and non-commercial. Even museums, to bow and scrape to the master of Austerity, have begun to put branding on their exhibits, as if they were a sort of cultural NASCAR. We have amazing potential power, but without concerted effort I’m afraid it will be wasted. It will look better to save 10 dollars a year per person in taxes instead of funding community computer workshops, and childhood literacy programs, and community gardens. All the while we play desperate catch-up, trying to get a hold on ebooks, and liscensing out endless sub-quality software for meeting room reservations and computer sign-ups and all this other rentier software capitalism instead of developing free and open source solutions and providing small systems with the expertise to use them. Our amazing power is squandered as we cut our staff, fail to attract skilled and diverse talent, and act as a band aid to the mounting social ills caused by slash and burn governance in the name of low taxes and some nebulous idea of freedom that seems to equate with living in a good society but not paying your share for it.

The entire comment is a must-read. I found it at The Verge’s weekly “Best Tech Writing of the Week” post. The Verge has fast become my favorite site for tech news and analysis, and the Sunday roundup post is absolutely unmissable.

When I teach undergraduates about the digital divide, it’s hard to convey the reality of computer illiteracy in a classroom context in which 100 percent have computers, 90 percent have smartphones, and probably half of them have tablets. A person who doesn’t have an email account (and doesn’t know how to get one) is as foreign to them as Samoan islanders were to Margaret Mead. How do they relate to someone who uses up his entire 30-minute block of library computer time trying to bring up the relevant social services website page?

5 thoughts on “When libraries lose, the digital divide widens

  1. There are no words to describe how distressing this is. Thank you for pointing out how destructive these decisions are. I hope your post here can make a difference. Because what’s happening to you in California is going to happen where I live– sooner rather than later.

  2. And if the library is closed where do they go? Who do they ask for help? Access to information and healthcare to me are basic civil rights because they enable everything else in a person’s life especially their participation in society.

    Our libraries in Australia perform similar functions as community hubs and information exchanges. They are funded by local government. We are not under the same pressure except that funding is stagnant as demand is rising.

    Knowledge and information are power and it is power that is being withdrawn from people who have little of that already.

  3. I really was shocked. You’d think I would be used to the California Legislative Follies by this point. But libraries? How much money can it be, relatively speaking, especially when you consider the return?

    When I first heard that Finland had made access to broadband a legal right, I’m pretty sure I made a joke about it. This reminds us why it is not a joke at all. The anecdote in the Metafilter comment almost made me cry.

    • The hypothetical patron story made me want to cry as well. I also live in California and recently I contacted this non profit organization about donating books. Now I’m wondering if I should have donated them to my local library instead. Not that private donations are a substitute for government funding, but it’s one of the few things I can do to make a difference.

  4. Pingback: Tuesday News: New Nook Pricing, Kindle Rumors, Reader Data, and Paypal Clarification | Dear Author

Comments are closed.