Poor Folks Online

It is midsummer, when I look at the calendar to see when the children will go back to school. Monday, always busy, since our branch libraries are now closed due to budget cuts, this week must have set a record in terms of demand for Internet access. Most of the day, waits for Internet PC's ranged from thirty to sixty minutes. It wasn't much better on Tuesday. Today demand eased up a bit.

After a big push this year to motivate people to get library cards for Internet access, it feels like there is a hard core of users that can't or won't get them. With a card, they can have two one-hour sessions per day and have some choice where they sit. As a "guest", they get one, randomly assigned session.

Many of our guests have run the gauntlet of "Do you have a Library card?" often enough to have a ready explanation for why they do not. It is a catalog of hardship. They live at the homeless shelter, or with family or friends. They have just moved here and can't verify their address yet. They have "lost their card", or have "left it at home". They have a fine that they cannot afford to pay, (though delinquent cards are still good for Internet access). They live in an outlying county. And I think that many poor people are reluctant to reveal themselves to a government agency, (which the library is, though their accounts are confidential). There may be outstanding warrants on a family member, or they may have skipped out on their rent, or be illegal aliens, who knows?

I try to sell the card. Not only would they get two sessions a day, but they could choose where they sit, make their own reservation without having to ask us, AND be able to check out our books, CD's, DVD's, AND have access to all our cool online databases. And it's FREE!

Most of the time they just wait patiently for me to finish and give them their guest pass. But sometimes I actually connect. I can see them sort of perk up and look at me. What do they have to do? Just fill out a little form and verify their address. Takes five minutes. Here's your pass, and stop by the information desk for your card when you leave.

It is as though we have two discrete groups of users: public access Internet users and our traditional library "patrons". The former, if they could afford to buy a computer and pay for Internet access at home, would rarely come to the library. The latter use their library cards to borrow materials, but don't need public access Internet unless their own PC's are broken. If one were to make a Venn diagram, how much would they overlap?

There is a scene in John Ford's film of Steinbeck's, The Grapes of Wrath, where the Joads, broke and out of gas on their trek to California, happen upon a New Deal CCC camp, if I recall, where they are made welcome and refreshed. For once, they are not treated like dirt.

Serve the People, Serve the People, Serve the People. Put yourself at their disposal. Help them, even when they are difficult, and you are sick of them. You may earn the greatest reward of all, "I'm so glad I came to the library!"

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