We took the kids to the Cameron Village library last Sunday and loaded up on the kids’ books. As I usually do (being the curious sort) I took note of the crowd making use of the library’s computers. I always like to see what kind of folks are depending on the library’s computers. Like many of my visits there, I found a crowd at the computers. There wasn’t even a single workstation available.
As my kids were checking out their books, I listened as a mom and her 10-year-old son pleaded with the librarian to get a computer. I guessed that he had a school assignment he needed to complete.
“What if they’re not doing anything important – playing games or something?” the mom asked. “Could they give it up then?”
The librarian shook her head. “As long as they’ve got time left on their reservation, they can use it however they like. Now, if they get up and walk away, leaving it unattended, then you could step up and use it.”
I never saw how it was resolved. We were leaving the library at that moment. That mom was trying hard to stay polite but the desperation in her voice was audible. They both looked so dejected, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for them.
I’ve been on the Internet for 19 years now and, through the good fortune of growing up in an IBM family, I’d started using computers ten years before that. It’s easy for me to take these miraculous technologies for granted. Those library visits have become a powerful reminder that the Digital Divide is not just some catchphrase, it’s a sad fact.
These are real people. There are millions of kids just like that 10-year-old boy who must scramble to get their homework done because they have no computer or Internet at home. There are kids who are missing out on the wealth of information that could be at their fingertips but the cost is too high. Meanwhile, their wired peers are learning at a lightning pace and this gap is growing seemingly as fast as the Internet itself.
So, when I learn of efforts to block cities and towns from closing this digital divide themselves, in order to provide these wondrous tools of learning to their citizens when others will not, I get angry. Libraries like the one I visited didn’t put bookstores out of business. They’ve peacefully coexisted for centuries. No one would accuse a public library of “competing with private enterprise.” Were he alive today, would the great library philanthropist Andrew Carnegie be branded a socialist?
There are some companies that would just as soon keep life-changing technology like the Internet out of reach of those who cannot now afford it and that’s sad. On day North Carolina will wake up and see just how short-sighted that is.