There's a bunch of interesting observations swirling around in my brain these days and it sorts out along the lines of understanding we are at an economic crossroads. When the Industrial Revolution triggered a change of agrian based economies and factory based economies, it seemed, or perhaps more appropriately the history books portrayed, the success of the new thinkers over the old.
Taking stock of the industrial landscape today, and it seems quite the opposite. The political leaders who craft laws and regulations are seemingly out of touch with how the digital revolution has changed everything. To sum up how this is true, think about Microsoft Office.
To some, Office has always been around, replacing typewriters (Word), ledgers (Excel), record rooms (Access) and so on. But we're about to enter a new era where Office is no longer relevant as we tap on our iPads and iPhones, Galaxies and the latest Android powered smart-something-or-other. Sure, there are whole blocks devoted to storing the gajillion bits of data that make up these transactions, but the idea of a dedicated application for you to create something is falling aside to transaction based apps that allow you to conduct communication.
Email was the first salvo of this, and as email has become the norm of business communication, who needs Office to craft a press release these days? I get a lots of press releases, but at some point not so long ago, I stopped opening word attachments, because the organizations who sent them were essentially saying they were out of touch and had nothing new to say. It was as good a rubric as any. I didn't need to know what the word doc said anymore because it is now the equivalent of getting a snail mail letter, instead of an instant hit on twitter, or link to a web site with all the content already prepared for me to read it the way I wanted to, whether by phone, tablet etc.
Which in a roundabout way brings me to libraries. Making the rounds on the tubes is a great post by a librarian about how so much of life is digital and how library computers and resources make the world of government accessible to those who are challenged by today's digital world.
I'll snip from it:
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.
Well, I certainly qualify as that "first world techie social media smart-shoes" person. But is this really enough to say that libraries are the right place for helping the 50-something set? And what if we take away the over-dramatic scenario above and replace it with your local municipal worker who has worked in the same place for 20 plus years, oblivious to the digital changes that have rendered their jobs practically obsolete? Do we still think libraries are the answer?
I think libraries still have a purpose, but access to information is not a given. Forcing digital access to one building doesn't seem like an efficient way to close the digital divide. We need to think bigger.