Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Libraries as Connection-Makers...

Most of us take for granted that the world is online. Some people think that Internet access is simply a given wherever they go, and that they should never ever face a time when they can't get to Facebook or Snapchat. And as we try to teach our students, library resources are available most of the places you will go.

So it might shock you to know that, according to a report of the International Telecommunication Union, over 50% of the population of the planet is offline. And in Africa, that percentage jumps to nearly 3/4 of the population.

But we live in one of the most connected countries in the world, you say. Surely this really doesn't apply to folks in the United States? Well, you might be surprised. It is certainly true that the United States has a LOT of well-developed network capacity. And with the prevalence of mobile phones with internet access, many parts of the country are reasonably well-connected. But if you live in rural America, you are far more likely to have spotty cellular reception and fewer opportunities to connect to high-speed broadband Internet than those living in cities of any size, and certainly lower than those living in larger cities.

A LOT of money has been churned into the effort to make the Internet as ubiquitous as electricity - according to Broadbandnow.com, just under $174 MILLION dollars have gone into broadband access in this state alone. But even with that degree of investment in infrastructure, over a quarter of a million Illinois residents have NO access to a wired Internet connection in their homes, while another 685,000 have only one provider available, leaving them with no choices as to how they can connect. Take a look at the maps on the Broadbandnow.com site - see where the connection gaps are located. A hint - the most likely places with no or only one option are rural.

Now, factor in cost. Even if all the world's information WAS free (it isn't), and it WAS on the Internet (again, it isn't), the Internet itself isn't free. Low-income residents are therefore more likely to not be able to afford broadband access, or are spending a much higher percentage of their income in paying for such access if it is available. Hmmm - coincidence that the poorest countries in per capita income are also the least connected? I don't think so.

The moral of the story? Libraries of all kinds, especially those that serve rural and /or low-income areas, are an oasis of resources to their communities. As competition for budget dollars becomes more and more cutthroat, and as more people lose access to services that help them maintain their quality of life, update skills, and continue their educations, libraries have a role to play in their communities as connections between the underserved and resources that they need. People go to libraries to print resumes, to search for jobs, to find information that might help them improve their lives - whether through learning a new skill or by improving their minds. Or even by giving them a chance to recreate a bit between classes or after work. And as a community college librarian, I am proud to say that we do our part to address ALL of those needs.

There is a saying - Libraries will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no libraries. So when you hear about budget shortfalls and cutbacks, don't forget the impact that can have on your library. And by extension, don't forget the impact that can have on its community in many different ways.

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