The local library near where I now live made five computers with an Internet connection available to the public around a decade ago, as well as wireless for those patrons who brought their own laptops.
I'm a recent resident of the area, but a deep family history means that there hasn't been a season since the system went in when I haven't spent a sizable chunk of time sitting and listening in the building, within 100 feet of those five computers. Except for a period when the wireless access was removed for a security overhaul, there hasn't been season I haven't used the wireless connection there.
This diary is a testimony to what I've witnessed in a single small own library.
I have checked my college grades and learned I was accepted into graduate school. Given the local community college is not in the population center and the library is, I have no doubt many grades have been checked online from those five computers and that many students have learned of successful transfers to the 4-year state school on those screens.
I have witnessed a parent giving a teenager a lesson on safe browsing, an activity that was given an explicit exception to the One Computer, One Chair rule by the librarian as well as being openly praised when she learned what they were doing.
I have witnessed a grown man being helped through the first stages of getting his first email address, apparently so that he could job search online.
I have seen teenager after teenager doing research online or just plain surfing the web in a town where many families do not own even a used or refurbished computer, much less one with Internet access. If they make it to college - many in this area do not graduate high school - they will not be left floundering the first time they need to check school webmail or do online research.
I have seen teens and adults alike using the library's licensed copy of Microsoft Office. Again, many families in this area do not have any home computer access. For many, an old typewriter or a visit to the library are the only ways to write business letters.
I have seen others use and have myself used the library's one printer. I have also been there for the headaches when it is down. Apart from the community college, this lone laser printer is the public printer for the entire town. When it is down and the college is closed, there is no publicly accessible printer within ten miles that I have ever heard of.
I have seen people of all ages accessing the library catalog. This library was one of the first I ever encountered with a computerized card catalog, and with the addition of public Internet access the library moved it online. Now anyone can browse the library catalog online from anywhere, and patrons with a library card number and PIN can reserve books and renew books without having to go to the front desk.
I have witnessed a family complaining that the library computers have no USB access. Emailing documents to yourself is the basic way of permanently saving anything on these systems, as well as the only way to get documents to the library printer from outside (the wireless connection does not connect to the print spooler). It wasn't the document problem they were complaining about, however. In recent years the price of USB drives has dropped, and with it the price of low-end mp3 players. They were complaining that there was no way to get music from online onto a new player one of them had recently bought using the library connection unless they had a laptop. Small town libraries can't afford to buy and maintain loaner laptops - not when there are no alarms on the doors.
In ten years, the residents of the area have come to see the library computers as more than something special and nice and extra, but as something that can give them the benefits people with the resources to have computers and broadband access of their own have. A $20 2 gig mp3 player from the 'dollar' store around the corner and a pack of AAA batteries from the same could give them access to all the free mp3 audiobooks available online if only there was an accessible USB plug - and they know it now.
E-readers will likely become a similar issue within the next five years by my guesstimation, even if only because of extra wireless connection load. The $50 difference between 3G and Wifi Kindles is not a negligible difference for area incomes, and another e-reader model has recently appeared at the local mall.
If the hours of this library were ever cut - removing either Saturday, the after-school 3-hour window, or both - the benefits of this library and its Internet access to the area teens would be greatly limited or go away entirely. As I said earlier, many of them do not graduate. I don't know how much of an effect the Internet connection has had on that, but between being able to college search, scholarship search, and just plain research online, I have the personal belief that the local organization to raise the graduation rate would have a much tougher job on their hands if that access went away.
Not all online job-seekers are currently unemployed, even here. Cut the hours, especially the Saturday hours, and the number of people able to job-search from this library would drop immediately. Likewise, access to the Internet at all could disappear entirely for a significant part of the population.
And all this could go away entirely if the budget ever failed to pay for the library-wide connection or replacement of eventually-ailing hardware. That could be disastrous, as from my count on many days more people come into that library for the Internet than for the books; they may check out books while there, but they came through the doors for the Internet.
Even requiring pay-for-use of the computers could be enough to shut a number of people out of Internet access.
This is not an urban library. This is not a suburban library. This is a library in rural Appalachia, where the county museum displays local scrip from generations past and it isn't uncommon to see a man wearing his black-and-reflective-tape work clothes from the mines while he takes his family shopping in town.
If this library's Internet access ever goes, for whatever reason, the access to the world that the scrip-paid forebears of the region could never have dreamed of goes - except for those with the money to pay for it themselves.
Daily Kos, Mother Jones, e-mail, Facebook, Youtube, politicians' websites, the region's many online edition local newspapers, the nation's newspapers, the world's newspapers - they all go away.
One local paper. One regional large-city paper. Television (which the mountains limit unless you've got cable or satellite around here). Area radio. That's what will be left for news whenever someone here loses access to that free library connection, for whatever reason that barrier is raised.
Please support your local public libraries.