Tough times call for tough measures. And for the nation’s public libraries, times could not be tougher. When it comes to balancing city budgets, local libraries are often one of the first institutions to feel the heat. In Philadelphia in 2008, Mayor Michael Nutter became the center of controversy when he proposed closing 11 libraries, nearly all in poor neighborhoods, to bring the budget into line. And library budgets have faced the chopping block this year in cities in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, and other states.
While this course of action may seem to be a quick fix to a city’s economic woes, closing libraries renders a crushing blow to the nation’s neediest children. Not only does it shut off their access to books and other printed materials that promote literacy, but it also has another serious side effect: widening the digital divide.
Having studied for a decade children’s use of books and computers, the two of us have warned for some time that the public library often is the only place outside of school that a poor child can find a book. We argue now that public libraries may be the only place outside of school where low-income children can use a computer and learn to navigate the Internet.
Although there is evidence that gaps in in-school computer use between poor and middle-income children may be closing, computer use outside of school is nowhere close to being equal. U.S. Census figures show that few low-income children have Internet access at home. While half of all children with annual family incomes of $75,000 or above have such access, just 15 percent of those with incomes between $20,000 and $25,000 do.
Ironically, the pressure to slash library budgets comes at a time when library use is at its highest."
To be sure, there are community agencies and recreation centers that offer computer and Internet access, but for most poor children, the local library remains the surest and most convenient alternative. Public libraries have long filled a tremendous educational need in poor communities by providing print materials, computers, and other services to underserved populations. Now, with more than 95 percent of libraries offering Internet access, about 10 percent of all Internet users look to the library as their only source of such access.
What is lost when we cut off poor children’s access to computers becomes more apparent when we compare how they spend their out-of-school time with how their middle-class peers do. Here, the advantages of online access are clear. While poor children are watching television or “hanging out,” middle-class children are digitally active. Lots of this time, of course, may be spent watching videos on YouTube, playing online games, or chatting with their friends. But they also complete homework assignments online, do research, and visit school-related Web sites. They become more familiar with Google, Yahoo, and other search engines than their low-income peers, and they learn to find their way around the Internet with greater ease.
With assistance from parents and caregivers, these more-affluent kids start using the computer at a younger age. As they grow, they gain more knowledge than their peers from poor neighborhoods. In later years, they will be experts in certain areas, while poor children will be left back, without an equal chance to succeed in a technology-driven world.
Ironically, the pressure to slash library budgets comes at a time when library use is at its highest. In hard economic times, libraries provide a safety net, as the newly unemployed who have been shut off from Internet access at work come to use the libraries’ computers and other resources. The demand for library services is skyrocketing, particularly in financially hard-hit communities. Yet it is the libraries in high-poverty areas, those that serve our poorest children and offer pockets of hope amid steep rates of unemployment, that are the most likely to close.
In a national survey of librarians, we found that these professionals are keenly aware of the digital divide and its ramifications, and that they are willing to help close it. But without adequate funding, they say, their libraries will not be able to continue doing this vital work. They cannot provide print resources to help enhance poor children’s literacy skills, the first step to gaining knowledge and succeeding in school. Nor can they give students access to computers and the Internet, so that they can continue to grow their knowledge base and succeed in a modern world.
Even before budget cuts, many libraries were not able to fill their communities’ needs for knowledge and information. Continuing to slash their budgets will only make matters worse, and will widen the digital divide for poor children. Cutting library funding may be a short-term economic fix, but if our long-term goal is an equitable and educated populace, it is the wrong idea at the wrong time.
A version of this article appeared in the April 07, 2010 edition of Education Week as How to Close the Digital Divide? Fund Public Libraries