A new study of public libraries by the Washington Eye School finds that 32% of the United States population uses the Internet at public libraries, and that 44% of people from households below the poverty line do. Unsurprisingly for a study funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, it recommends more computers in public libraries.
But the study also notes that 69% of the U.S. population uses libraries, though it does nothing with that fact. However, we can conclude that while most Americans use libraries, most of them do not use library computers. Most library users don’t use library computers, either.
The study calls for more state and local funding for computers and bandwidth in libraries, but what about all the library users who don’t use the computers at all? What are they doing, and why not call for more funding for that? Why not instead note that most people aren’t using the computers that are there now.
I’m not necessarily against more funding for library computers and bandwidth, though I don’t see more coming anytime soon. The 44% of poor Americans using those computers aren’t the ones who will be vigorously fighting any tax increases.
However, I don’t think librarians should go crazy over a library study funded by the Gates Foundation and conducted by a school too hip to have the word library in its name.
What else are the majority of library users who don’t use the library computers doing at the library? Over half of Americans using libraries aren’t using the computers, so they must be doing something. Presumably, some of those 32% of Americans using the computers are also doing something else at the library that doesn’t involve computers. What are they all doing and why aren’t we talking about that?
It’s probably not hard to guess what most of them are doing. Reading books, finding movies and music, going to storytimes, attending public meetings, doing homework, and all the usual boring things that people do in libraries. I’m too lazy to do any actual research and Chip is away at the moment, but I’d bet that at least half of library users check out books. Wouldn’t it be great if we had a study arguing that since so many people check out books we should have more public funding for books?
Oh, I know, more funding for books isn’t sexy. No one from the Eye School cares about books. And it’s not going to do anything to bridge the digital divide, and that’s all important.
Except it’s not. The digital divide is undoubtedly important, but there’s another divide that’s even more important: the literacy divide. The poor need computers, but it’s more important that they learn how to read. 44% of poor Americans use public libraries. Oddly enough, that’s the same percentage of children in Detroit who never graduate from high school.
More computers in libraries would be great, but at the moment libraries are firing librarians and cutting back hours. At the rate L.A. is going, there won’t even be any libraries or librarians there pretty soon. There are people who think librarians don’t do anything and that all people need are computers. Those people are idiots, of course, but that’s not important.
What’s important is that librarians focus on all the things libraries do for people that don’t involve plugging in more computers, because if they can’t convince the public of that then we’ll eventually have many fewer librarians and libraries, and we still won’t have more computers.