"I'm just down for my monthly visit and need to check my email. There's no internet in the mountains where I live," says a gray-haired lady.
"I just got out of prison after 10 years; I'm not sure how the computers work anymore." A menacing, tattooed man says sheepishly.
"My grandkids got me this tablet-thing for Christmas but I don't know how to set it up and use it", a stoop-shouldered man complains.
"I need to apply for a job, I'm just back from the oil fields but I don't know how these online applications work." Says a despondent man in his 40's.
"I don't know how to get an email address."
"It's asking for a cell phone and I don't have one."
These are situations that happen daily at the public library. It may come as a shock to you, reading this as you are on the internet but, not everyone knows how to use a computer or even has access to one.
I have to admit... even though I keep a smile on my face, there are times when comments by some of my patrons, strangers who discover my profession, or even well-meaning friends offer this question (in some form or another) it makes me grit my teeth:
"How long do you think it will be until everything is digital?"
Other variations include
"Doesn't everybody have/know how to use a computer?"
"What are you going to do when there are no print books?"
"Why do you guys buy so many books anymore Nobody reads in print anymore"
I could go on but you get the point.
There are a lot of assumptions in that one statement. What makes me grit my teeth is the unintended insult buried in the thought. It also shows a lack of understanding of the world outside one's comfortable little bubble.
Let's look at the reality of living in New Mexico. We are ranked as one of the 10 poorest states in the U.S.. While the exact position varies depending on the source, the Land of Enchantment (a.k.a. the Land of Entrapment) measures high on the poverty scale and low on the average income scale. Combine this with a wide geographical area with many topographical variations which make some areas almost inaccessible and you have a state where a few people in "big" cities ("big" is relative when you're talking about our population distribution) make a good living but many more are struggling to make ends meet.
If a single mother (all too often starting as a teenage mom) is struggling to provide food, housing and clothing for her children, what are the chances she is able to afford the luxury of internet at her house?
"But they have computers at the schools" is the argument I've most often heard.
Have you been in the schools lately? Some lucky classrooms have 3-5 computers for 20-30 (or more) students have to share. Computer labs provide about 30 computers for an entire slew of classes and scheduling is tight. Teachers have to schedule their time with the computers accommodating the other hundreds of students who need time on the units. And with the state-mandated testing schedule, much of that screen time is not used to provide instruction in basic computer skills and critical evaluation skills to teach students how to safely navigate the internet, it is used to teach the kids how to click the answer to take the test. (This is another completely different issue--standardized tests and the instruction time they steal from teachers doing their best to teach in spite of the restrictive, unhelpful and onerous unprofessional restrictions placed upon them every year.)
Even when teachers fight to give their students enough educational screen time, they are doing so on computers that are out of date.
Which means, the kids aren't getting enough computer skills to teach them the current software much less the skills to keep up with the fast pace of the digital world. Seniors citizens who may have started out trying to learn the ropes are often outstripped by the rapid changes and updates. I sat with a sweet older couple one day a week for almost 2 months to teach them how to access their Facebook from their iPad so when the day came, they could post a memorial picture and article to commemorate the anniversary of their grandson's death.
From devices to phones to the internet to basic computing skills and typing/keyboarding functions (yes, we've had to explain how to get the @ symbol, the difference between the delete and the backspace key, and to specify that you have to press the keys for anything to happen), the public library helps everyone.
As I've said before, the public library is a great equalizer. Not bringing down the mighty to a lower level or vice versa but offering a level playing field for citizens of all ages to learn, increase and sharpen their skills so that they can become productive citizens. Job applications are almost exclusively online for many businesses. School research needs access to reputable resources that just aren't "on the internet". Disenfranchised citizens of all walks of life can find a helping hand and training here.
In essence, the library is the bridge to cross the digital divide.
Keep building the bridge and make it strong!