Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Broken internet, the friend of libraries

I have worked for a long time at a busy library. Year after year more and more people have come to this library every day. Or, that's how it used to be. It is possible that things are stalling out a bit. Maybe it is the fluke of an unusually severe winter, but there is a glimmer of something else at work here. Perhaps we reached maximum capacity. It's not like an old inner ring suburb has a lot of room to grow and there is only so much area traffic to go around, no matter how compelling we are. I actually like that theory to explain the slowdown. The really popular theory however is one about how the digital world of downloads and streaming and online entertainment, e-books and e-readers, is gutting the libraries. People like to write newspaper articles about this sort of thing. Library professionals like to fret over it and cut their book budgets in order to fund anything with an "e" in front of it, no matter how speculative it is, or how small a population it serves.

While I am not keen on racing to appease the digital, I will definitely admit there has been one core technology that stabilizes library usage. No matter how quiet my library gets, no matter what stray, abandoned library branch I have stumbled into, there is always a thick knot of dedicated Internet computer users. Disaster may have crippled the city, a whole nation may go illiterate, a library may have been relocated temporarily to the dark side of the moon, but whatever computers it has will be mostly in use. Knots of quiet people sit glued to these interactive TV sets every day, every hour any library is open.

We take it for granted. It is so ubiquitous it goes almost unmentioned. And yet, it begs a question: Why do so many people have no usable internet at home?

The answer is fairly simple. Most of our Nation's Internet access is run by something that's largely indistinguishable from a monopoly. This causes our Internet to be half broken and insanely expensive. Many industrialized nations manage to provide Internet at speeds we can only dream of, and at a fraction of the cost. Perhaps in countries like this, when a library is quiet, it's just empty.

 But for us, with our horrible, broken, run by monstrous corporations Internet, a steady traffic to the library of frugal, impoverished and desperate Internet refugees is happily guaranteed, and the fate of American libraries is secured into the foreseeable future!

Of course, it is possible that these patrons are just people with no place to go. And if we had no computers, they'd simply read books, instead.

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