Sound Off: People need library Internet

For some time I have wondered about the emergence of the computer and Internet access as part of our library system. I am a longtime library user, but in my case it has always been to check out books. The reading material that the library has been able to offer through the years has always been a source of enjoyment and knowledge to its patrons. I recognized that the Internet also offers opportunities for enjoyment and that the library Internet access provides incredible databases for increasing one’s knowledge. But how are the computers actually being used in our libraries?

A visit to the Oak Harbor Library on a busy afternoon makes it very obvious that the growing number of people wanting to use the computers exceeds the number that the library is able to provide. However, I wondered how much of that use was essential. Many people in our community are not real excited about funding more computers and space so that more people can play around on the Internet. They even question whether this is a legitimate expense for our libraries. They might just be surprised!

The significance of growing computer access requirements in the community and its effect on libraries was addressed recently in a national study funded by the Gates Foundation and completed by the American Library Association. The study found that nearly three-fourths of U.S. libraries reported that they were the only source of free public access to computers and the Internet in their communities. They also found that the top three Internet services most critical to their community are online educational resources and databases for K-12 students, services for job seekers and computer and Internet skills training.

Homework assignments in our schools often require access to online information available via the Internet. Many students who do not have adequate computer access or bandwidth at home rely on the local library computers to complete their assignments. The study also found that, “Today most businesses and organizations use the Internet as a primary method of finding and interacting with job applicants.”

Despite the increasing demand for Internet access, the libraries are not seeing a corresponding increase in budget. Most libraries reported that additional space requirement is the top factor affecting their ability to add computers. The expense associated with more electrical outlets, cabling and other infrastructure also limits the ability to keep up with computer demands.

The study left no doubt that a growing number of citizens in our communities find themselves requiring Internet access to carry on their education, find employment and learn computer and research skills.

The library is the only place that offers free access to the computer/Internet arena. Many people in Oak Harbor and across the country do not have any other means of access. We need to maintain our ability to service this growing population of library patrons who need Internet access. If not at the library, where?

Bruce Sutherland serves on the Oak Harbor Library Board. For a copy of the Libraries Connect Communities: Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study 2006-2007 report, visit http://www.ala.org/ala/ors/undingtechnologyaccessstudy/0607report.htm.

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