The digital divide, in the US is driven by the market. If there were a way to sell eyeballs to advertisers using the public library, there would be one on every corner. If there were a way to get people to subscribe to the library and make money for McDonalds, Wal-Mart or Chevron [or, more realistically Time Warner, Gannett and Warner Brothers], everyone would have a card. If there were real competition in the OPAC marketplace, if switching OPACs was simple, if start-up costs weren’t so high, OPACs would be better, scads better.
People value access to information but many people don’t know how or where to start.
Once you own a TV you know how to watch TV. The same is not true for a computer. Once you have a TV you get programming for free — though they are changing that rapidly. The same is not true for a computer, the Internet costs money above and beyond technology costs. Once you have a TV you become a passive audience for advertising as well as content. The same is not true for a computer — no matter how hard advertisers try to make it otherwise. Competition for advertising dollars drives up the “interestingness” of television programming. Competition for advertising drives down the usability of free services which are often the only option for people with limited resources. The public library drops the ball in ways on computer and Internet access and user education, sure. I think they’re missing an opportunity to serve a genuine community need, one that I see in my job every single day.
I don’t think this is because patrons are choosing television over the library any more that I think that people “choose” to rent their furniture instead of own it, or “choose” to stay in New Orleans instead of evacuate. I think people choose non-library options because we don’t see the same investment in libraries that we do in media infrastructure. There is investment in the television infrastructure, in many many ways, through regulations favorable to the networks, through infrastructure support for broadcasting at a national level, through plain old corporate welfare that makes big media conglomerates pay less in taxes than I do. If libraries had that sort of money, you’d probably see them becoming public access computing centers — in addition to all of their other roles — because that’s what people want.
As a nation we don’t prioritize library service. As individuals many people make choices to not GO to the public library, and don’t interact with the public generally. I chose to live and work in Vermont specifically because people like me are a dime a dozen in Seattle, and in San Francisco, and probably in Brooklyn, but out here, my level of expertise is unusual, and it helps people. I use my public library even though I guess I could technically “afford” not to. I work with the information poor even though my level of education and experience means I don’t “have” to.
The so-called digital divide, in the US, is one driven by values. If people valued access to seek-it-yourself information, to email, to the internet in the same way that they clearly value access to network TV, I doubt there would be a digitial divide. The DD, simplistically, is a clash of values between what librarians think people want and need and what people opt to spend time and dollars on.
It’s always hard when paradigms shift, and harder still when people who should be working together to help people grapple with them can’t even agree on what needs to be done. Worse yet when those rifts seem to happen along philosopher/practitioner lines as they so often do. I feel that this is like watching agribusiness get a strong foothold, and watching the local Grange slowly die out. I’m backing artisan and organic food solutions in my boutiquey testbed of Orange County Vermont, call me when they get cell phone service here.