April 2024: In Between

Column Description: Some words of wisdom from those more wise than me about gaining confidence when talking to people who break your rules.  

It's interesting to hear older librarians talk about the number of public computers they had in their library. Back then (the 1990s), computers were initially considered expensive and a luxury, so not many people would spend the money. Libraries had to set a time limit on computer use because there were so many people vying for the few we had. Everyone heard about how we would all be using them in our workplace, but who believed that?

Pre-pandemic times managed to keep library computers humming constantly. Patrons were doing research, writing papers, filling out job applications, and a myriad of tasks that only worked on a laptop or desktop computer. People had smartphones but the Internet was optimized for larger screens, sizable storage, and powerful applications.

During the Pandemic, no one could get near the library’s computers. Everyone was using Zoom at home and probably purchased or was provided a device from work or school for that purpose. When we allowed people into the library, we cut the number of workstations to provide distance in between. Fewer people came into the building so there were no time limits and the area was left empty for hours. Did the Pandemic do away with the need for a public computer space?

There has been a noticeable change with the usage of a public computer, shifting to tasks like printing packing labels for Amazon or eBay or scanning a document. People also came to the library to make appointments for COVID shots. Pharmacies and other facilities were requiring appointments to be made online and telling customers to go to the library to make an appointment. Pharmacies couldn’t make appointments themselves. Senior citizens, especially, did not or could not learn how to navigate the appointment application and asked us to do it for them.

The Pandemic also quickly changed our access to Internet information and services from primarily desktop and web accessibility to offering mobile-friendly apps to accommodate those who only had smartphones. The library began offering printing straight from a smartphone over our WiFi so there is no longer a need to use a public computer to print.

Do we need a public computer space at the library? To navigate today’s world, make appointments, access patient files, and social security funds, or see your child’s grades, getting on the Internet is essential. Purchasing a device is still costly and there is an ongoing fee for cellular service. The cell service bill is the new electricity or gas bill and while it seems like everyone on earth has at least a smartphone or some sort of device to access the Internet, that simply isn’t the case.

Organizations like the National Digital Inclusion Alliance and the CNY Digital Inclusion Coalition (CNYDIC) strive to bring about legislation and funds to provide high-speed Internet service to everyone. According to CNYDIC, 32% of households in the middle of the state who earn $35,000 or less do not have Internet at home, and of those whose income is $35,000 - $75,000, 13% do not have Internet access at home. Beyond that, many of the households do not have high-speed access but cable, dial-up, community WiFi, or other antiquated systems. If schools didn’t provide a device for students and companies didn’t purchase workstations for some of their employees, access through only a smartphone would be a larger percentage than the reported 7%.

Accessing the Internet is as essential as electricity and heat and there is a disparity between those that can easily buy access and those who have to decide between food and paying the heating bill. Because finding a job and paying bills are increasingly only through electronic means, those without sufficient access are at a huge disadvantage. The public computers at the library provide digital equity, leveling the playing field between the computer haves and have-nots.

Social media apps are now the new television stations and communicating with family and friends is increasingly through the Internet. While this is convenient, the loss of face to face interaction through our reliance on our devices may affect us in ways we haven’t begun to fathom. Sociologist Ray Oldenburg talks about the idea of a third place where people can gather and interact. The first place in a person’s life is their home while the second place is work or school. The library can be a third place where communication in person provides a much-needed societal benefit not accessible on the Internet.

Many people have smartphones and the ability to connect anywhere, but there are still people that don’t have access. There are people without digital skills to access online job applications, social security, and other services crucial to day-to-day life. While the Pandemic caused major changes in how we access the Internet, it highlighted the need for digital connectivity in every home. There are still people who don’t have the funds or skills to efficiently and usefully utilize the Internet for essential programs.

The library’s publicly accessible computers offer a way to learn new skills, compete for jobs, and gain entry into services that could create a more secure future. The library’s computers are free for anyone to use and many libraries offer computer skills classes - it further solidifies the library as a source of equity that is still necessary. 

Jacquie comes to Baldwinsville from a varied background of professions like Internet trainer, young adult librarian, school librarian, president of a nonprofit, and member of a board of education. She’s also performed just about every role in a library except the director, having recently added custodian to her list by plunging the public toilets. Now she is happily situated at the Baldwinsville Public Library.  

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