Nearly one-third of Americans age 14 or older – roughly 77 million people – used a public library computer or wireless network to access the Internet in the past year, according to a national report released today. In 2009, as the nation struggled through a recession, people relied on library technology to find work, apply for college, secure government benefits, learn about critical medical treatments, and connect with their communities.
This is one of those ironic bits of good news. On the one hand, it suggests the enormous importance of the library in a democratic society; on the other, it suggests something about the enormous scale of U.S. poverty in general and in the recession. It’s also a rebuff to those radical conservatives that see all government services as nefarious and to those technology Utopians (or Dystopians) who have long predicted the demise of the public library. Class trumps both.
I think the librarians, and their professional organizations, should get the credit for making sure that the library keeps up with technology in the service of making information freely available. That’s an important element in the ongoing attempts to ameliorate the impact of capital (aka the class struggle). It also shows that the computer, unlike the television (or the radio elsewhere) has yet to reach true ubiquity. The machines may be cheaper, but the machines alone don’t get you access. Broadband remains expensive.
The struggle never ends, of course, and the hope is that these sorts of studies will revitalize funding for public libraries. (Would the wacky Tea Beggars (sorry, Baggers) complain about money for library technology? No doubt they would find a way.) I can’t help but wonder, too, if the library has become a new sort of public square for many, particularly in poor urban neighborhoods and isolated small towns. Thanks to 30 years of conservative reactionary politics, it may well be the last and perhaps the only place you can go just to get the tools you need to survive.