I’ve spent the past year and a half of my life in library school, and about three years before that working in some capacity in rural, suburban, and urban libraries, and currently I’m currently at a cross-road in terms of whether or not I want to work in public libraries. There’s a constant state of fear and malaise among the professors, the guest speakers, and the students – a constant question that we, the students, get asked is “so, uh, do you guys have any ideas?”

Undoubtedly libraries are a good thing. The access and training that we provide for technology isn’t offered by any other public service (largely because public services are rapidly becoming a dirty word in this gilded age of decadence and austerity), and without our services it wouldn’t be the end of the world, but it would be a significant dimming.

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.

Do you go to the local social services office? No, you don’t. The overworked staff there says that due to budget cuts they can no longer do walk-in advising, and that there’s a 2 week waiting list to get assistance with filling out forms. You call them up on the by-the-minute phone you’re borrowing from your cousin (wasting 15 of her minutes on hold) and they say that they can’t help, but you can go to your public library. OK, so you go to your public library after work (you ask your other cousin to watch your grandson for the day since wasting those minutes has temporarily burned some bridges). Due to budget cuts the library no longer has evening hours, sorry, try again (and you also don’t get back the bus-fare or money you spent on a hack to get across town to the nearest branch, since other budget cuts closed the one in your neighborhood). OK, so you come back on the weekend. You ask the overworked librarian at the desk to sign up for a computer. She testily tells you that you’re at the wrong desk, and that sign-ups are at circulation. You feel foolish and go over to the circulation desk, who tells you that you need to sign up for a library card to use the computer. After filling out the forms the librarian starts to make your card for you, and informs you that she can’t process a card, since you have fines from 2 years ago that total fifty dollars. It’s an emergency, you say, you need to use the computer. She sighs heavily, informs you that it’s against policy, and then prints a guest pass anyway. You get 30 minutes at a time for a total of 2 hours per day. Computers are on the second floor.

You go up to the second floor to find a total of 20 computers with a waiting list of 15 people. You do some quick math in your head, and realize you’re probably going to be here for a while, so you walk over to the magazine section, and read People while you wait. Finally, it’s your turn. You walk over to your terminal, and your time starts ticking. Your breath seizes in your chest, and you realize you have no idea what to do. You have the form that they gave you at the social services office, which has an address, which you sort of know what that does, but you can’t quite remember – 17 minutes, by the way. You try typing X City Social Services in a box at the top, a page comes back and says “address not found” with a list of things below it. You’re panicking, because there’s a line forming (there always is) and the library will probably close before you can make it back on – 10 minutes, by the way. After a little more fumbling and clicking you have no luck, you’re kicked off, and immediately someone is standing behind you to use your computer. You relinquish your seat, and head back down stairs. You’re about to leave, already trying to think of who you know who has a computer who might let you use it, and might know about filling out these forms, but the only person you can think of is your friend in the county, and taking a bus out there would be awfully expensive.

Before leaving you decide to try one last thing. You go up to the desk, and explain your situation. The tired, overworked person at the desk nods along, and says, “well, we’re not supposed to do this, but…” and tells you to walk around the desk. With a few clicks on the mouse they have the site up that you spent 30 minutes trying to find. They bring up the electronic form, politely turn their head aside as you fill in your social security number, and then ask you a series of questions to satisfy the demands of the form. It comes to your email address, and you have to admit that you don’t have one, so the librarian walks you through setting up a free one and gives it to you on a slip of paper. “We have free computer classes,” he says (and you’re lucky, because a great deal of public libraries don’t), but you look at the times and realize that between your job and taking care of your grandson you’d never be able to attend, and it’d probably be too hard anyway. You thank him, and he smiles, and you leave. Congratulations, you’ve staved off disaster until the next time you need to use a computer for a life-essential task.

Now let’s start that again, but this time you don’t speak English. Just kidding, I don’t want to give you too much culture shock in one day.

So that little melodrama right there is every minute of every day at the public library. Replace essential forms with applying for a job, or filling out hours on a time sheet, or trying to find legal assistance, or any number of the other high skill, high resource activities that you, as a privileged first world person who is constantly surrounded by computers and has used them for a majority of their life, find trivial. The digital divide isn’t just access, but also ability, and quality of information, and the common dignity of having equity of participation in our increasingly digital culture.

Would you like numbers? Alright, for whatever it’s worth, here are the numbers,

Start with the The Public Libraries and the Internet study. It’s pretty great. Here’s a piece from the conclusions section,

Analysis of the data from the 2007 survey pointed to an emerging trend that raised serious concerns for public libraries — patron and community needs for Internet access, training, and services were quickly outpacing the ability of libraries to meet those needs (Bertot, et al., 2008a, 2008b; McClure, et al., 2007). This situation was the result of a confluence of major factors such as public libraries being the only source of free public Internet access in three–quarters of communities;

It’s slightly dated, but do you honestly think that in 5 years we’ve had a sudden amazing turn around in the economic situation of the very poor?

Pew Internet on Internet access. Your “80%” number is heavily influenced by ethnicity, socio-economic class, educational attainment. Also, there’s a damn-sight difference between bringing up the Facebook APP on your Blackberry, and trying to use the same device to write a research paper.

EQUALITY (meaning, at any level, can they) may be approaching parity (although your eagerness to leave behind 20% of the population is a little sickening), but EQUITY (meaning, what can they do once they get there) isn’t anywhere close. A decade of our miraculous crowd-sourced, app-tapping, Internet connected society (as seen on Boing-Boing) and the digital divide is pernicious as ever.

If you have any concept of a free and equal society, then libraries are still an integral part of that. Forget all of the other stuff, like letting you get books for free, or giving you a place to meet to plan a community garden, or tax help for seniors, or (I could go on and on) anything else that the hard working, intelligent, under paid people at your local library are trying to provide in spite of shrinking budgets.

With all that being said, here’s the problem that I have with public libraries.

We’re dying. I’m currently on the side of “no” that we can pull out of this tail spin. I’m not saying that you’ll turn around tomorrow and every public library will be aflame, with neo-conservative Gauls stepping out of the ashes with a copy of “A People’s History” between their teeth, and librarian blood on their axe. Instead it will be a slow death by a thousand cuts, as shown in this article. Today, California cuts the funding for interlibrary loan (oh, sorry young, rural, LGBTQ youth who was hoping to get an anonymous loan of a book that might tell you that your life isn’t a freakish abomination as so many of your class-mates insist, here, try this copy of The Sweet Valley Twins from 1989 instead). Tomorrow we have to charge for meeting rooms and our fines have been increased by 150%. The day after that we’re a contracted out to a company that puts advertising in your books, has low, low rates on Red Box© rentals, and who’s under absolutely no compulsion to protect your checkout history from police searches (also, you now get advertising in your email based on that history as a Value Added Service!) Look to Britain.

So, why? Why, when we’re such an essential service, and across all party lines are a loved and valued institution? Mostly because we moved too slow to respond to the Internet, and also because instead of fighting back during times of austerity, loudly proclaiming that we’re the best investment you can make for lifelong learning, social stability, childhood development, and community cohesion. This is, in part, because outside of the ALA (which is a great organization, a great lobbying body, but perhaps not quite strong enough nor well funded enough) there is no large, overarching public library thing. There isn’t a central office that can dictate policy, allocate funds, and launch a massive PR campaign. At different levels, yes, there are state and county and non-profit organizations, but the existential crises that libraries now face is massive, universal, and needs coordinated effort.

We need to do something which I’ll admit is ill defined and perhaps impossible: we need to become the center of civic engagement in our communities. 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.

Every day at my job I helped people just barely survive. Forget trying to form grass roots political activism by creating a society of computer users, forget trying to be the ‘people’s university’ and create a body of well informed citizens. Instead I helped people navigate through the degrading hoops of modern online society, fighting for scraps from the plate, and then kicking back afterwards by pretending to have a farm on Facebook (well, that is if they had any of their 2 hours left when they were done). What were we doing during the nineties? What were we doing during the boom that we’ve been left so ill served during the bust? No one seems to know. They come in to our classes and ask us if we have any ideas, and I do, but those ideas take money, and political will, and guts, and the closer I get to graduation the less and less I suspect that any of those things exist.
posted by codacorolla at 10:52 AM on February 12 [74 favorites +] [!]

Also, as an aside, the ALA has a proven history of commitment to intellectual freedom. The public service that we’ve been replaced with has a spotty history of “not being evil”. When we’re gone, you middle class, you wealthy, you tech-savvy, who will fight for that with no profit motivation? Even if you never step foot in our doors, and all of your media comes to a brightly lit screen, we’re still working for you.

Codocorolla – http://www.metafilter.com/112698/California-Dreamin#4183216