Note: I originally posted this essay in October of 2006, on Destination NEXT on the General Discussion board. Since you have to be at a staff workstation or logged into the City's remote link to get access to Destination NEXT, I'm reproducing the essay here.I want to propose something far more radical than the "get with the future," market-driven message we library professionals are hearing these days. The focus of that message is almost wholly on competing for consumers who expect the latest in automated and online delivery of public library services. I did hear that warning and take it to heart in library school seven years ago. However, I joined and remain in the profession because of a more sacred set of librarianship values.
The roots of the American public library lie with Benjamin Franklin and his peers, who believed that "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" depended upon free and equal access to information. They thought it important that information and the ability to search for, have access to and use it should not be solely the province of those privileged by prosperity or status.
Franklin himself began as an apprentice tradesman and built his career from scratch. He wanted to be sure that any other American had the means—underwritten at public expense, if necessary—to do the same. He knew that he had made his success through his own literacy, through his access to information, and through his freedom to use it, independent of the mediation or control of others.
We now have a culture in which only those with the advantage of computer and Internet access and the knowledge of how to use these tools can even get to much of the daily information which is most important for living successfully in American society. Even many basic government and commercial services are now almost inaccessible without the ability to connect to and use websites, online forms, email, office software, etc.
I’m sure that others of my colleagues have had the experience of trying to help someone who was told by an employee of the unemployment service, “Go to the public library, get on our website, and fill out the application.” Likely others have had to help a middle-aged or immigrant job hunter, possibly one with a lifetime of competence in his or her trade, now trying to find and complete the mandatory online application for a new job. You all have your own examples.
The new jargon refers to those who have grown up in the online world as “digital natives.” Those of us who entered the work world before PCs, but who have had the privilege of learning to use and perhaps of owning them, are “digital immigrants.” We somehow manage to keep up—sometimes holding on by our fingernails—as e-technology speeds away from us.
My concern here is for the very large population of immigrant and native residents who are “digital refugees.” Whether or not they know how to use these new technologies, our culture now expects them to join the “wired world” if they want access to the benefits and prosperity America has claimed for its successful citizens.
As our library system leaps ahead toward a 21st century refit, which will increasingly automate basic circulation and search services, I believe it is essential that the staff thus freed from mundane tasks be redirected with all deliberateness into what used to be called “library instruction.”
Every branch should have staff with the training, the resources and—especially—the dedicated time to teach people computer and Internet literacy. It should become a core service, developed and coordinated system-wide, for us to seek out and assist those who are struggling or being left behind in this digital age. It could be part of every public service staff person’s job description and performance plan to create, contribute to or participate in such instructional activities.
We library staff all have the advantage—the privilege—of having built successful careers in this new world. Yet if our library’s mandate is only to satisfy the consumer wishes of people who are already “on the cutting edge,” then we are failing the basic purpose of the public library: to make certain that everyone has free and equal access to what we provide at public expense.