The nonprofit Knight Foundation announced today that it’s working with communities across the U.S. to make libraries more relevant in the information age.
Lady Bird Johnson once said that the only entrance requirement to a public library is interest. A lot has changed since the 1960s, and that interest is fading. Libraries are cutting back services, and for many, the Internet has assumed their role.
I was especially saddened to learn that my hometown of Philadelphia came close to shuttering its public libraries due to a conflict with the State budget. Many of the city’s poorest residents would have been left without Internet access.
The Knight Foundation is working to reverse that trend by funding projects at local libraries to make them centers for digital and media training. It has financed computer labs in under served areas, recruited multi-lingual technology teachers, installed wireless Internet in some libraries, and set up job centers for online employment searches and career research.
“Digital access is essential to first class citizenship in our society. Without digital, you lack full access to information, you are second class economically and even socially,” said Alberto Ibargüen, president and CEO of Knight Foundation. “If a job application at Wal-Mart or MacDonald’s must be made online, how can we pretend that we have equal opportunity if significant portions of our communities don’t have access? Libraries can be part of the solution.”
Libraries are not just places for the poor. You can access research databases through your public library that would otherwise be unaffordable, and some libraries are wading into digital lending.
Unfortunately, I haven’t waded into a library for some time. I carry a New York Public Library membership card on my key chain, but am remiss to say that I haven’t attended any of my local libraries. The same is true for my colleague Harry McCracken, who tweeted that he was visiting his local branch over the weekend for the first time since moving over a year ago. Harry used to go several times a week.
That might be because both Harry and I own multiple computers with Internet access at home. There are many people who cannot afford a computer, or are without Internet access. Those are the underserved.
Maybe the Knight Foundation is onto something. Communities need resources to bridge the digital divide, and libraries are open to everyone–even if everyone doesn’t always go.