Would you like wi-fi with your books?

Last week NPR’s morning edition did a story on a Tennessee library that lends Wi-fi hotspots. Spring Hill, Tennessee is a smaller than where I live. Previously I’d only read about urban libraries in Chicago and New York lending wi-fi. And those programs, according to an article I found on Spring Hill’s unique initiative, are limited to patrons who meet certain criteria and the wi-fi is limited as well. Spring HIll’s, by comparison, is open to all patrons and the wi-fi is unlimited, even geographically. The library partnered with cellular company T-Mobile to achieve this. There’s no mention of the upfront costs for the hardware, but the NPR piece mentions that the data alone costs $10,000 a year.

Cost aside, I wondered about whether this fits a library’s mission. Yes, libraries connect people with resources and information. But in nearly all cases, our resources are available to everyone, whether they check things out or not. I sat next to the director of a small town library in New Hampshire at a conference a couple of years ago and she had recently put tables outside, after noticing people hanging out near the building after the library closed. They were using the wi-fi.

I’m not sure what the answer is — whether libraries should be investing in technology to lend it out or if towns and municipalities should fund wi-fi in a greater variety of places — not only libraries, but other public spaces — instead. Or whether libraries should extend their wi-fi beyond their walls for patrons to use anytime. Lending hotspots, even in such a generous program as Spring Hill’s, means that a limited number of patrons can borrow it, for a limited time.  Which doesn’t seem to me like the best use of resources.

I get that the internet is necessary, and I can attest that we have patrons who need to get online to access legal documents, apply for jobs, complete assignments, even fill out and file time sheets. But Spring Hill’s story strikes me as yet another way libraries are being redefined according to needs that have been created by the cutting back of other public services, and by the economy — the NPR article points out that  there are housing developments that don’t have internet connection available yet. Unspoken was the reason: generally a service or product isn’t available because a company has decided it’s not profitable.

And libraries pick up the slack. We offer daytime shelter to the homeless because social services have been cut. We offer computers for filing job applications because the unemployment office doesn’t have enough. Or provide homework help and after school programs because of cuts to schools, and because families can’t afford private programs. I’m not saying we shouldn’t step up, but it seems to me that we risk diluting ourselves, and that if these are services the public wants, they should look hard at elected representatives who cut them elsewhere and expect libraries to provide them instead. Often with no additional funding. I’m again struck that in the name of making ourselves “relevant” we grow further away from what makes us libraries.

What is your library doing that was once the purvey of another federal, state, or local agency? Do you lend wi-fi? Or make it more convenient for patrons to access it after hours? How can libraries best serve the public — by sticking to what we do best, or by continuing to stop up gaps left in the public service sector?

 

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The case for the written and printed word

A few weeks ago I was driving to Vermont to see my college-student son, listening to NPR, and heard this interview with Texas judge and former San Antonio mayor Nelson Wolff, the man behind “Bibliotech” the “bookless library.” As I’ve written here before, Wolff clearly doesn’t know much about the obstacles publishers place on library e-books: burdensome pricing structures, limits on the number of check-outs, etc., which result in long waits for popular titles. He promotes his model as fiscally prudent, but seems not to worry about spending tax dollars on e-books licenses, which expire, unlike physical books, which are libraries’ to keep for as long as they can be mended. And let’s not forget that e-readers and tablets break, wear out, or become obsolete as new technologies come along.

In the interview with Scott Simon, Wolff noted one goal of Bibliotech, to “bring technology to a area of the city that is economic disadvantaged, highly minority, and do not have access to the Internet and the various modes that we have to access it. So we provide eBook readers that they can check out.” If the readers are pre-loaded with e-books, this makes a little sense, but it doesn’t explain: a) how people without internet access benefit from borrowing a device that requires an internet connection to maximize its use and b) why providing internet access and devices has to exclude access to printed books, which are also not common in low-income households. Also, nowhere in any of the coverage of Bibliotech have I read anything about whether librarians or library patrons were asked about their needs.This is one man’s dream, and that’s how it should be reported.

Wolff,  like  much of the press, is also behind the curve on e-books: the Pew Research Center notes that younger library users (16-29) value technology but also read print books at higher rates than older Americans (75% of Americans 16-29 have read a print book in the last year), and studies show e-books sales have leveled off or are declining (Nicholas Carr offers insightful reasons for this at that same link). In Canada, they have fallen to 15% of the book market. In the UK, e-books are 9% of the book market, and in the U.S., e-books are just under 25% market share. That’s it. But you didn’t know that, because the reporting is “1 in 4 books are e-books” not “3 in 4 books are printed.”

That hardly sounds like something to devote an entire new library building to, does it? I think the smarter way to go is to incorporate technology into library offerings, and to respond to the actual needs of local library users. Many of whom are looking for more than technology. They want places to meet and connect with their neighbors, according to sources as varied as the Pew Research Center and the people of Effingham, New Hampshire, who are delighted with the improvements made to their public library and are flocking to events, the most popular of which is “Writer’s Night,” in which “the community turns out to hear presentations by writers,” then “play music, recite poetry, read a passage from a favorite book,” during open mic.  Bravo to Marilyn Swan, the resourceful library director who is working on making her library — and the written word —  a vital part of Effingham life.

Another story that cheered me a bit: in England, students used 400-year-old maps from the British Library to create authentic and very high tech 3D gaming worlds for a competition. These young people, steeped in technology, are seeing library collections come to life in their work. Well done, British Library and city of Nottingham, which sponsors the GameCity “festival of video game culture.” The Daily Mail reports, “The primary objective of the competition was to inspire innovation among students and merge rich visual sources from the past with industry-leading technology.” Not to mention getting them into the archives of the venerable British Library, and giving them reason to value preserving print materials.