If you’re reading this, you are sitting in front of a computer screen (or, perhaps, some kind of mobile screen — or, I suppose, you are reading a printout, but at some point you, or someone, got it from online). I’d like you to think for a moment about that time you spend sitting in front of a computer. I myself spend most of my day that way.
If I’m listening to a story on the radio, and I hear them say, “to see an interactive map of thus and such and hear more of whatever, go to npr.org,” I can quite easily stroll over to my laptop (if I don’t have it open already) and check it out. If I want to try again to order some black boots for my extremely long narrow feet (this is, I think, a fruitless quest, but I keep trying), I can spend all the time I want clicking around on Zappos and reading customer reviews. I can work on my taxes online and call my mom to ask a question about them at the same time. If you are reading this, chances are that you are able to do these sorts of things too, and that you do them without much thought.
Now I’d like you to imagine that you don’t have a computer with internet access.
I’d like you to imagine, in other words, that you are like a lot of the people who walk in to the average public library.
How much time does the average public library patron usually get to spend on a computer? 30 minutes to an hour is fairly typical, and that’s 30 minutes to an hour only once a day in a lot of places.
Think about all the things you did on a computer yesterday. Imagine that you had to do them all in one hour, on a computer that does not have all your favorite Firefox extensions, that quite possibly is missing the latest update of Flash, that probably won’t let you burn a CD.
I love the internet. I love that libraries are one of the few places in the world that provide free internet access. But when we talk about electronic resources and the wonders of the web and putting the world at people’s fingertips, I think it’s good to remember that for a significant number of people, we’re giving them an hour of that world at a time, quite probably on Internet Explorer 6.