Last Saturday morning, while thousands of the tech-enabled were lining up in anticipation for the release of yet another technological luxury, thousands of people were checking their email and managing their lives, digital and otherwise, from what at times seems like an antiquated place: the public library. Yet, according to a recent study, commissioned by the Information School at the University of Washington, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, a much larger number of people were likely using computers at their local library last Saturday morning.
According to Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries, over 32% of the United States population uses public libraries for their Internet access. "Internet access is now one of the most sought after public library services, and it is used by nearly half of all visitors."
Much like the iPad release seems like a new piece of technological "magic" to many of us, basic access to a computer and the Internet is radically life changing to many. Over 44% of people living below the poverty line use the Internet at libraries. Even more astonishingly, our nation's future, 14-18 year olds, have used a library computer during the past year. Libraries are not passe. If anything, they are in vogue.
Our nation's public libraries need a serious reinvestment. They should not be places using dial-up and a computer that 1998 would reject. Our nation's public libraries should be treated as national treasures. They are places of first discoveries, first words read, first experiences and the place where the "lightbulb" goes off for children and adults alike when it comes to literature, math and the sciences.
After reading the study, I went and worked at a public library. Even though I was probably using the most tech-savvy device in the place, the magic was in what was happening around me. Kids doing their homework with the help of a computer. A precocious little boy was carrying a stack of books bigger than he was. A mother was reading to her young child.
Libraries are America's real laboratories for education and engagement for over a third of our population. Technology is amazing, but pure discovery is what is still really magical.