I’ve been driving around in a part of the country that isn’t very populated. There aren’t a lot of libraries to check out. I will be posting soon my experiences with the ones I have come across. However, since I’ve been pouring on the mileage, I’ve been ruminating about one of the single biggest challenges I’ve come across as a traveler. I have taken back roads and gone into communities that are not on the Interstates, not on the general radar of the country as a whole. I have experienced first hand the challenges that face these communities in terms of commerce infrastructure in the 21st Century, namely access to the internet.
America thrives on business. Commerce is what has driven our economy for centuries. Those back roads I have driven may have started as Native American trails, or covered wagon roads, or even a clear path for a rancher to drive his cattle. Later on in the 20th Century these paths and rudimentary roads became paved, paid for as the federal and state governments recognized the value of easy transportation and its relationship to increased commerce. By mid-century the Interstate system replaced these back roads and linked the bigger cities by literally increasing the speed of commerce, while unfortunately impeding the growth of those cities and towns that were unfortunate enough not to have easy access to the Interstates, engendering an unfortunate reality of decline among smaller communities.
This model stayed the same until the advancement of the Internet Age. On the surface, the Internet has fueled explosive growth and commerce on a global scale. A person in suburban Chicago can now order their groceries online and receive them only hours later, in some cases without paying for shipping. But that is in a metropolis whose people have access to the high end of everything, including high speed LTE cellular wifi, among other things. As I’ve said before, this service in particular is severely limited and usually only available to smaller communities who cater to the well-heeled (like this small town ski community of Steamboat Springs, Colorado I am staying in right now…). People who live in smaller communities don't necessarily have these options. A lot of these communities still don't have decent 3G coverage, much less LTE, so having a smartphone is out. They pay a premium for wired-based home internet access too. This further illustrates why libraries should be encouraged and funded for not only internet accessibility, but also funded to stay open more often.
Internet access is the infrastructure challenge of this century, and having public access to it can make or break a community in the long run. Libraries should not underestimate their importance in serving their community as a node of public access. Communities should not rely on the private sector, i.e. McDonald’s or Starbucks to provide access, because as lovely as it is checking your email and downing a Frappuccino is, you are expected to move on after you take your final sip or have eaten your last bite of your Quarter Pounder. (I saw a sign in a McDonald’s in Englewood, Colorado that expressly forbade people from taking over a table longer than thirty minutes.) I also know first hand that a lot of communities don’t even have chain restaurants. I didn’t see a single McDonald’s or Starbucks in the whole of South Dakota (gasp!). Plus, there is always the issue that the private sector can be data mining and/or just watching what you surf. I’m not saying that public libraries are the safest place for wifi usage, I’m just pointing out the fact that public libraries are not in it to make a buck; It is not in their interest to monitor wifi usage.
So, I hope I’ve made my case for continued support and the need for freely available wifi. My next essay will be on how the heck communities can pay for it.