Here’s a story that slaps you in the face. An eighth grader is working on a school paper and using Internet-based resources to presumably do some of his research. Good so far, right? Unfortunately the Wall Street Journal article, “The Web-Deprived Study at McDonald’s,” takes a hard turn and shows us the student’s Internet options mostly run out after his local public library closes.
Why is Joshua, the eighth grader, doing homework at a fast-food restaurant, and how could this situation be improved? We can all agree that there should be more options for Joshua and his fellow students. It’s a painful reality to accept that some students have to go to a restaurant or café to finish an assignment – particularly since more than 40 percent of library patrons use technology to pursue educational activities, including homework help and online classes.
Even though the Cintronelle (Ala.) Memorial Library has nearly tripled the number of computers available and is open 30 hours per week, more is needed. In rural areas 70 percent of libraries are the only provider of free public computers and Internet access – something that is critical when many students not only have no home Internet but may lack a laptop, using a mobile device to access the online world.
In 2012, 89 percent of the nation’s nearly 17,000 public libraries provided Wi-Fi access, and about three-quarters of these reported an increase in the use of their Wi-Fi. Since most of these libraries keep their Wi-Fi signal on after hours, we are very familiar with the “parking lot” uses of people who don’t have other Internet access options. Today, nearly all libraries provide public access computers staffed with knowledgeable librarians who, in many instances, work closely with school librarians and classroom teachers to make sure their resources and databases complement the ones in the K12 schools.
These librarians, school and public, can help Joshua locate the very best resources, teach him how to evaluate online information, and guide him to collaborative production tools to compose high-quality papers. While computer and Internet access are an essential starting point, trained staff and relevant resources are also vital.
Unfortunately, because of the economic downturn affecting so many families and causing some to discontinue Internet access, public libraries also are feeling the stress. This past year, 57 percent of public libraries reported they had flat or reduced operating budgets, and in the previous year 23 states, including Joshua’s, reported cuts in state funding. Although public libraries may want to increase hours, upgrade Internet speeds, add computers, provide mobile services and serve as community Wi-Fi hotspots, they face significant challenges.
If you only consider library infrastructure, many public libraries depend on E-rate discounts to take care of the recurring costs for Internet access. E-rate is one of the Universal Service Fund buckets and provides schools and libraries with discounts on telecommunications and the internal connections necessary to put those services to work. Libraries (and schools) receive discounts for Internet connections based on need and a somewhat complicated application process.
Even with these discounts, many libraries find themselves strapped in paying the non-discounted portion and struggle to maintain or improve their technology. In 2012, we see for the first time that the demand for E-rate funding for Internet and telecommunications services alone claimed all of the available funds and it was only through carefully structuring the available funds that the neediest of applicants could receive support for internal connections.
The way the E-rate fund has been maxed out (it has a cap around $2.25 billion adjusted annually for inflation) in recent years, not very many public libraries and generally the poorest schools are receiving discounts for the internal connections required to bring the Internet from the building entry point to the public computers.
In Idaho, for example, no libraries have received such funding since 1999, a year or so after the program started. Clearly the inflation adjustment which only brings the amount of E-rate dollars available to both schools and libraries to about 3 percent more than it was in 1998 when the fund size was established is not enough and must be further increased.
So what’s the answer? There are many shorter and longer-term possibilities. Maybe local government officials should make funding library technology a higher priority to support their future workers. Maybe school administrators and school boards should commit to supporting extended school library hours staffed by librarians.
Maybe there should be more pressure on Internet providers to make their broadband more affordable for families, as well as institutions such as libraries. Maybe there should be more pressure from the federal government to push telecommunications providers into rural areas where it’s difficult to make a business case for trenching fiber. Maybe government agencies should provide funding for programs that bring technology, resources, and trained staff into neighborhoods where resources are lacking such as Philadelphia’s KEYSPOT program.
Maybe foundations and corporate philanthropic institutions should increase their interest in funding local initiatives that create enticing after-school opportunities for our K12 students such as those in libraries that are modeled on Chicago’s very successful YOUmedia program or create opportunities to bring Wi-Fi into needy neighborhoods like the Free Library of Philadelphia and its Techmobile.
A book isn’t enough to meet the current research and educational needs of our students and broader community. Libraries are part of the solution, and we need more and better support for public, school and college libraries to support learning beyond the classroom with other community partners.
Our students should not have to order fries as part of their homework assignments. We all need to step it up so this story has a better sequel.