Last fall, I drove to Columbus for a one-day unconference with library technologists. We each took turns writing topics on the board about which we wanted to learn or to share. The attendees separated into small groups according to interests: open-source content management systems, blogging and social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.).
It turns out that librarians are passionate about technology, and for good reason. Since card catalogs gave way to searchable online directories, everything about information has become digitized. Government has likewise been turning everything over to the Internet: any and all forms that can be filled out and submitted digitally must be submitted online. From unemployment to workers’ compensation, the process begins with and is fed by virtual forms.
The connection of all this to working-class issues may not be immediately apparent, but think for a moment about the effect of these changes on access to information and to basic services. In order to apply for unemployment benefits, one completes online forms. Not only does this require some level of computer savvy, it also requires Internet access. How many unemployed working-class families can afford Internet access?
The Pew Internet & American Life Project reports that of the 25% of adults who do not use the Internet at home: 13% can’t get access, 7% can’t afford it and 4% don’t have a computer. Pew Internet further cites 43% of Americans in households earning less than $30,000 per year and 23% of Americans in households earning less than $50,000 per year as non-Internet users at home. The most obvious points of access for these and other users are public libraries.
I spoke with Diane Vicarel, Digital Services Manager at the Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County. I asked about the popularity of public Internet access and whether she could provide any statistics on how much their computers were used throughout the day. She wasn’t sure such statistics existed, but that’s only because the computers are always in use from when the doors are opened in the morning until the last user leaves. She said the sight of lines of people outside waiting to use the computers is common.
The library also provides a number of databases to support adult education, resources for job searches, audio-visual assets and links to additional information across the Web. Of course, libraries still serve the fundamental purpose for which they began: massive catalogs of books on every topic, for recreation or reference.
Ohio has made news in the last month by proposing to slash hundreds of millions of dollars in library funding from its annual budget. Funding for Ohio’s libraries is determined by a formula that ties a percentage of the state’s general revenues. Revenues have plunged in the current economy, leaving libraries wondering what lies ahead. Compared with 2008 funding levels, 20% of state revenue has been lost since January of 2009. Another 30% cut has been proposed on top of that for this year, with further expected cuts of 47% in 2010 and 45% in 2011. As state revenues fall nationwide, Ohio is certainly not the only state whose libraries are facing crippling cuts at a critical time.
This double whammy is the sad story facing American workers today. Economic decline means lost jobs and fewer state dollars to support libraries where the unemployed can both get temporary assistance through unemployment benefits and access to tools to hopefully get another job.
The success of the stimulus package, as has been discussed several times on this blog, will be determined in part by the foresight to continue providing a safety net of tools and services for those who have fallen. The strain our society will face if those with temporary financial setbacks lack the resources necessary to get back on a road to recovery will be far greater than if we identify and continue to financially support those resources, such as libraries, that are needed as a critical link between workers and the government.
Tyler Clark is a technology and Web marketing consultant who writes about Youngstown .