Internet Access as Public, Social & Cultural Space

In his book, Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library, Dr. Wayne Wiegand groups library services into three major categories:

  • Information access
  • Reading materials
  • Public space

These categories clarify a nagging issue I have with the language we use to talk about the importance of internet access in libraries. The following quote from a recent article by Larra Clark is a good example:

Libraries offer millions of people access to employment and career information, certification and testing resources, assistance with online job applications, skills training and free public Internet and computing access.

(From: “Public libraries, employment & digital inclusion,” Digital Dispatch, posted by Larra Clark, December 1, 2015.

These are important resources and information that public libraries make available to people who don’t have reliable internet access. Internet access is increasingly essential to success in schools, as well as in the job market. So I would never gainsay the value of providing such access to disenfranchised members of our community. Internet access in public libraries empowers many people in important ways. I agree with Ms. Clark’s points whole-heartedly.

Her article, though, is entirely indicative of how librarians talk about public internet access: we address it almost exclusively as a matter of access to information and resources.

But that’s not what the internet is. Not really. The internet wasn’t built just to function as an information storage and retrieval mechanism—it was created as a communications medium. The internet is social space.

Think about everything you use the internet to do each day: If you’re anything like me, most of what you do online has nothing to do with accessing information. Sure, I read the news pretty regularly, I occasionally look at the weather, and sometimes I use databases and sites like Consumer Reports to do research. But such uses comprise a tiny fraction of my total internet usage.

I go online to spend time with my friends on social media. This constitutes the vast majority of my time spent online. I watch videos, listen to music, look at images and photos, and laugh at stupid memes. I play games. I write this blog and an occasional poem or short story. The internet is how I keep up with pop culture. My online writings are a way for me to contribute to our culture.

For me—and I’m willing to bet, for most of you reading this—the internet is a social space where we connect with each other and participate in modern society. For many, the digital world is a realm where we create and share. The internet is an arena of social culture.

The internet has never been just a repository of information and resources. That was never its primary function.

When Dr. Wiegand examines ways that library patrons have used their libraries for the public spaces they provide, he uses descriptions such as:

Libraries had broader communal functions, including providing space for the emotional experience of community, enabling discussion groups, and at the same time cultivating a sense of freedom, status, and social privilege. (p. 43)

[Libraries] helped build a social life . . . in which readers met in real and virtual places and absorbed common messages defining a past and present. (p. 38)

There are many more instances in his book where he offers descriptions of how libraries function as social centers for their communities. What strikes me most about these descriptions is how accurately they define the ways that most people use the internet.

People who lack internet access don’t merely miss out on the resources the internet makes available. They’re cut off from an increasingly dominant and vibrant venue of cultural participation. They’re excluded from a significant aspect of modern society. They’re denied a voice in our collective discussions and conversations, barred from an active role in our cultural development.

Providing reliable internet access—bridging the Digital Divide—is a matter of social equality and cultural empowerment. It’s a community inclusion issue. It’s necessary to welcome all members of our community into our shared public space. The internet is a part of that shared space.

Librarians tend to talk about internet access primarily in terms of information and resource access. But I rarely hear us address this issue as one of shared public space—the internet as a center of modern community, as a hub of cultural participation.

Most people who deal with Digital Divide challenges outside of libraries understand this. But we librarians are trained to think first in terms of information access, and that colors how we approach internet access in our service models.

But it’s incorrect to address internet access only—or even primarily—as an information service. Internet access properly belongs in the public space pillar of library services.

It’s a natural fit and we need to start treating it that way.

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