A few months ago I was standing outside my local public library waiting for it to open. Within a few minutes a handful of people had joined me. When the doors opened we all filed in. Everyone else headed straight for the computers leaving me alone to browse the shelves. At first I was surprised by this—I never use the computers at the library—but then it occurred to me, I am one of the lucky ones who has a computer and access to the internet at home. This hasn’t always been the case though, and when I had no internet access at home where did I go to get online? The library of course.
According to a survey on Internet Access conducted by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), 27% of UK households do not have internet access. The same study links internet usage to a number of socio-economic factors; according to Mark Williams from the ONS, those less likely to have used the internet are typically less educated and from families on lower incomes. We might assume, therefore, that these groups are also likely to form a large proportion of the households without internet access. It is precisely these groups who benefit from the free access to the internet that public libraries provide.
Internet access is now being discussed as a basic human right. A growing number of European countries are setting this down in law and it is on the agenda of the UN’s International Telecommunications Union. Amongst other, more controversial proposals, the UK government’s Digital Economy Bill was promising to deliver broadband access throughout the UK by 2012. However, with one year to go, they are a long way off. If internet access for all is to be believed as a priority for the government, then surely closing public libraries and removing some people’s only access point to the internet is taking a step backwards?
Simply providing access to computers and the internet, however, isn’t enough; people need to be taught about the nature of online information, how to search for and evaluate information, and how to stay safe online. In the ONS survey on internet access, 21% of the people who said that they did not have internet access at home stated it was because of a lack of skills. This doesn’t surprise me; both through my work in a university library and conversations with friends and family, I am often shocked by people’s lack of awareness about what they do and can do online.
These are not just skills that adults need to have to be able to function online; our kids need them too. It is wrong to assume that those people who have grown up with the Internet know what they are doing online. I see so many students from the so-called Net Generation who appear to have no clue about how their actions online now may come back to haunt them in the future. Whilst there are moves to embed digital literacy into the school curriculum, there is also a need for parents to teach their kids about these issues too. In a conversation about social networking with colleagues at work recently, I heard about their concerns over how their children were using these sites. Issues related to the content they were sharing and how trusting they were of the people they were sharing personal information with, were of particular concern. Although parents may be aware of the issues surrounding their children’s use of the internet, do they know enough to be able to teach them how to use it responsibly?
The internet is a new world with a new set of rules, and it can be daunting. I—and many of my peers—have learnt about this world through experimentation, but many people will want some guidance from a source they trust. This is where public libraries can help. In addition to providing the equipment to get people online they can provide training in basic computing skills, online communication, information retrieval and online security. An example of this in action is in Newcastle’s libraries where a series of introductory IT training sessions are run. These cover topics such as ebooks, online shopping, email and social networking, and accessing health information online.
Public libraries have a role to play in so many more spheres than the provision of books; providing access to the Internet and learning opportunities are just two of them. The loss of public libraries is not only a loss of access to books, but also a loss of access to information of all kinds.