In 2000, the People’s Network was rolled out to public libraries across the country. Introduced to reduce the extent of the digital divide, it had three main goals:
1. provide universal access to the internet
2. increase take-up of ICT amongst both the digitally and socially excluded
3. support lifelong learning.
Alongside the provision of ICT, training was also provided for staff to ensure that they could provide support for those that required it. Whilst a small minority of libraries charged users for making use of their ICT facilities, the majority provided the service free of charge.
Our view is that the principle of free ICT access is absolutely fundamental for public libraries. Despite the widespread belief that “everyone is online”, a significant proportion of the population are not. In the latest of its quarterly reports into internet access, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed that 8.20 million adults had never used the internet. That’s 8.20 million adults who not only do not have an internet connection at home, but have also never sent an email or shopped online.
The quarterly reports produced by the ONS provide some interesting statistics regarding the proportion of people that have never accessed the internet, including:
- Over 8% of those earning less than £200 per week.
- 43% of disabled people.
- 40% of 65-74 year olds.
- 70% of those over 75.
In contrast, the proportion of those earning over £800 per week who have never accessed the internet is virtually nil. Again, it is worth emphasising that this figure refers to the proportion of the population that have never accessed the internet, not simply those without an internet connection at home.
Alongside their report on internet access, the ONS also produces a report on household internet connectivity. Amongst its findings, the report also reveals the reasons why people do not have an internet connection at home:
- 20% say that the equipment costs are too high.
- 10% claimed access costs were too high.
- 20% believed they lacked the skills required.
It is clear that free ICT access in public libraries has a crucial role to play here. Whilst internet access is undeniably widespread, there are still many who do not have the access that many of us take for granted. For many, the public library provides them with the opportunity to connect and take advantage of the substantial benefits that come with an internet connection. For example, a report by the Department for Education and Skills in 2005 found that “there was a significant positive relationship between pupils’ home use of ICT for educational purposes and improved attainment in certain areas”. For those without a home internet connection, the implication is clear.
Given the extent of the divide between those that do have access and those that do not, it is vital for public libraries to play a key role in addressing this divide. Central to this role should be the provision of free computer and internet access and, equally importantly, trained staff. This is particularly crucial as the government increasingly embraces a “digital only” policy where services can only be accessed via the internet. Clearly such a policy puts many without home internet access at a distinct disadvantage. Given that those affected include the disabled, the elderly and the poorest in society, there are very serious concerns about the impact of a “digital only” approach, concerns that public libraries are in a strong position to address – if they can ensure free internet access and provide trained staff.
As demonstrated in the statistics from the ONS, there are already significant barriers in place for many in accessing the internet. The addition of a charge at their local public library is simply another barrier to add to the list. Indeed, whilst it may be tempting in these times of belt tightening, charging for internet access will likely cause more harm than good. Buckinghamshire libraries, for example, saw a 30% decrease in usage as a result of introducing a £1 charge for 30mins (Goulding, 2006). The impact of charging is clear and significant.
No matter the temptation, the conclusion that should be drawn is that ICT access in public libraries must remain free for those that wish to use it. An insignificant fee to those with a steady income is not necessarily an insignificant fee for those without. With the ongoing changes to the benefits system and pressure on the unemployed to find work, it is surely not appropriate to introduce charging individuals for using an information resource that can play a key role in getting them back into work. Public libraries provide a crucial lifeline for many in difficult economic times. It is important, therefore, to ensure that they continue to offer services such as computer access free of charge. Placing another barrier in the way of those that need the service the most will not balance the books, it will simply exclude the vulnerable, the disabled, the unemployed and those on low incomes. Free access to the internet should be a cornerstone of every public library service, it should not be sacrificed on the basis of a need to “balance the books”. The long term costs of charging stand to have a significant and negative impact on the future of library services, and the individuals and societies they are supposed to serve.