Charging for access to the internet undermines the principles of the public library service

Image c/o telmo32 on Flickr.

You might have seen the report today in the Daily Mirror revealing that many public libraries have introduced charges for internet access. The introduction of such charges obviously has very serious implications for those who are out of work, particularly given the recent changes brought in by the coalition government. According to the report:

Britain’s libraries are making the public pay for services previously provided for FREE before the Tory-led Coalition’s cuts, a shock survey reveals today.

And the new charges are hitting jobseekers, children and the elderly hardest as they had relied on free access to the internet and computer services at their local library.

A survey of 2,000 library staff by Britain’s biggest public sector union Unison for its annual conference in Liverpool this week, uncovered a sorry picture of rising charges, shrinking opening hours and job losses in those libraries managing to escape being shutdown.

Many reported a steep rise in fines, charges for computer services and Internet access as well as children’s and schools-related services and author visits – the very services that attract new users to libraries.

And the survey that more than 40% of staff say their library now has an ‘income generation target’, prompting the same percentage (40%) to say that their library is now run more like a business than a public service.

We have been concerned for some time at the rise in public authorities charging library for access to the internet and we would urge authorities that are already doing so to reconsider their stance. As we clearly state in our manifesto, we believe strongly that internet access and ICT in general are available free of charge to the user. We understand that financial pressures are placed on local authorities, but we believe that the principles of free access to information should form the foundation of any public library service.

A recent cross-European survey funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation underlined the importance of ICT in public libraries. The survey revealed a number of key points [PDF]:

  • About seven in ten library users felt that ‘free access to computers’ and ‘free access to the internet’ in libraries were either very or extremely important.
  • 4.1 million adults had used library computers to support some employment related activity.
  • 1.5 million library computer users had used one to apply for a job in the last 12 months, and about a quarter of a million of these had been successful in securing employment by this means.
  • 4.6 million adults first used a computer to access the internet in a public library.
  • Usage of public access computers were highest in Denmark and Finland, both of which have a higher proportion of households with internet access than the UK.

Internet access should not be seen as a privilege but as a right, and libraries should be playing a key role in enabling people to exercise their rights to access information. Facilitating access to information with minimal barriers is, after all, the fundamental purpose of the public library service. Rather than introducing charges and restricting access to the internet, we should be looking to the example of Finland, a country who made access to broadband a legal right. This cannot be achieved simply at a local level, it requires government action to ensure a change in mentality and a commitment to enabling equal access to information for all.

It has never been more important than now to ensure every individual has free access to the internet. Public libraries must play a crucial role in ensuring access to information, it is up to central government and local authorities to ensure that they do so.

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