HOLLY, Township - There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library, this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration.
No one’s opinion of the purpose of the public library could possibly carry more weight than that of the man who gave the world over 2,500 of them. And the great philanthropist Andrew Carnegie believed firmly that public libraries should exist in every community so that all people, regardless of their level of advantage in life, could have an equal access to information.
In Mr. Carnegie’s day, of course, information was contained in books on a shelf, and the collection of such information was accomplished slowly, by adding a few more books each year. Today, the world’s collection of information expands daily. And new ideas are shared instantly online, rather than sitting in sheafs of paper awaiting a publisher’s approval. Now in order to have an equal access to information to those born into a life of advantage, one must have frequent access. This means that in order for today’s public library to close the information gap between the haves and the have-nots, a person ought to be able to walk into the public library and sit down at a computer with Internet access, armed with the skills to use it.
Reading skills, of course, develop with access to the written word at an early age. Mr. Carnegie began building libraries in the late 1800s, and even those libraries often contained children’s sections. Public libraries are designed to invite users, including children, to browse, to discover, and to grow comfortable with books. It has always been a hands-on experience. In order for our children to develop the same level of comfort with today’s repository of information, they must be encouraged to similarly browse the Internet at the public library.
The Holly Township Library is asking for a millage renewal this August. I think it’s fair, as we contemplate the library’s value to the community, to ask how it is doing in closing this information gap for our children. Are Holly area children encouraged to browse the Internet when they enter our public library?
The library has one computer in its children’s section. It does not have Internet access, but is pre-loaded with games. The last time my 6-year old sat down to use it, an error message popped up. When he asked a librarian about it, she said, “It’s not working and I don’t know how to fix it.” With that, she turned the computer off.
There are three computers in the young adult section. They do have Internet access, but the last time I visited, one was out of order. I witnessed several kids milling around that area, waiting for an opportunity to get on one of those computers. How sad it is to see young people, eager to sit down and practice the research skills they will need their whole lives, and be frustrated in their attempt.
Fortunately, the Holly Township Library has received a federal grant to purchase fourteen new computers and support furniture. I applaud the library for that achievement. As I was told that none of these computers are planned for the children’s area, I would assume they will go into the main area commonly used by adults. I hope that children will be encouraged to use them as well.
But I can’t help wondering, if multiple computers are already out of order in the library, how will they manage to keep 14 more in working order? With 72 percent of the library’s 2010-2011 budget allocated for staffing (salaries, social security, and health insurance), there is not one educated information technology professional on staff. And there is not one person on staff offering free computer classes to the public.
In theory, the information contained on the Internet should be equally available to everyone. But in order for that to happen, there must be equal access. It’s not enough for the computers to be at the local library, they have to be in working order and there ought to be opportunities to learn how to use them. I’m not saying that libraries should offer a full-fledged computer curriculum, just a little gentle guidance. Similar to the way story times offered in Mr. Carnegie’s era and in ours encourage a love of the written word, so too should our public libraries design programs that encourage a level of comfort with the Internet.
Otherwise, our children, at least those who do not have Internet access at home, will grow up disadvantaged. And our public library will not live up to its mission, which should be to make the world’s knowledge available to all.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of The Holly Express and at it's requset, the Holly Township Board of Trustees.