I remember years ago, when I would travel and wanted to keep in touch with my friends and family, I would just pop into the local library and use the Internet. Sometimes I’d have to sign up for a specific time to use it and wait, but I certainly never minded waiting and exploring libraries in other cities or countries. But times have changed. In many libraries now, I may be prohibited from doing this. I may get to a computer terminal only to have it ask me for my card number. While some libraries make exceptions for people visiting from other places, other libraries forbid non-patrons from using the computers or charge them money to use the Internet. The library is supposed to be an open place, but should it open its doors (or more accurately, its computers) to everyone? I know this is a contentious topic at public libraries across the country, but I think it’s a simple one to answer. Yes, they should allow anyone to access the Internet who comes to the library (with time restrictions applying).
The public library I worked at last year used to have that policy. The library is located in an city where housing is extremely expensive and where most of the people working in the service industries cannot afford to live within the city limits. As a result we had a large number of people coming into the library on their lunch breaks or after work to use the Internet who were not patrons, but were vital parts of our city. For some of these people, it was their only opportunity to access the Internet as they had no computer at home. We also had homeless people (who had no address and thus couldn’t get a library card) who used the Internet. If anyone who did not have a library card wanted to use the computer, all they had to do is come to the circulation desk and ask for a pass. Because we rarely had a crowd wanting to use the computer all at once, people could get as many passes as they wanted (they expired after an hour). But this utopian situation was not to last. The crowds did not get bigger, as you might have assumed. The problem was, the city’s coffers were getting smaller. They pressured the library to find a way to drum up more revenue. Lots of people had ideas: sell coffee, raise fines, charge people who do not rewind videos (this was a favorite of mine as I was one of the people who had to rewind the videos), etc. But the powers that be decided to start charging non-patrons for Internet access (along with charging for certain videos that had previously been free). Now, when someone comes into the library from out of town, they must pay $5 for each hour they use the computer. For some people this wasn’t such a hardship, but for many of the poor people from other towns or the homeless, this essentially robbed them of any Internet access. Many of my co-workers were bothered by this. We argued that we were keeping people from communicating with loved ones, from looking for jobs, etc. We argued that this measure went against everything a public library should be. I felt like we were turning into a retail institution. We charged for videos and DVDs, we charged for Internet access… what was next? We even got a credit card machine, which made me feel like I was not at a library at all for all the cash and plastic I was handling every day. It just made me very sad. It was an eye-opening experience for someone just starting library school and hearing all about the core values all libraries and librarians should adhere to.
I know there are a lot of reasons to restrict access. If a library has few computers and huge demand, it becomes more problematic. If a computer offers wifi, there are also needs to control and restrict access because of the limits on how many people can use it. I think the problem is that libraries did not anticipate many of the new issues that came with offering Internet access, and everyone is struggling to find their own solution to these problems. But what I’ve always loved about libraries is how open they are. How you can walk into any library, pick up a book, and read it there, whether you are a patron or not. Internet access seemed like another thing that should naturally be free to anyone who made the effort to come to the library. But that is no longer the case in some places and it always felt so wrong to me to tell people that they could not use the Internet if they didn’t have a library card or were not willing to pay $5. With all of the budget crunches and pressure from city or county agencies, it is easy to forget the library’s mission: to serve the community. Is the community made up only of those who pay property taxes, or is it also the people who work there, live there (on the streets), and visit? They all make the community what it is, and I would argue that libraries should provide Internet access to all of them.