Opinion

The Internet and Libraries: Improving Infrastructure for Economic Opportunity

Today, hundreds of librarians are on Capitol Hill to tell elected leaders why libraries in every single congressional district are indispensable. Modern libraries are engines of economic opportunity that transform lives. Libraries have always been centers for learning, but the technology and innovation created by the internet industry have acted as an exponential multiplier of public good for America’s more than 120,000 libraries.

Internet-connected libraries allow everyone – from students to veterans to entrepreneurs – in communities all across the country to access new technologies, improve job skills, start new businesses and pursue educational and vocational programs.

In the abstract that all sounds well and good, but let’s see what that looks like in reality.

The Akron-Summit County Public Library offers services that would make even a Silicon Valley startup jealous. Entrepreneurs looking to grow in Ohio have access to a microbusiness center, co-working spaces, a business librarian, market research databases, a top-of-line multi-media studio called TechZone@Main, and other tools to develop prototypes and promotional materials through their public library. And as the saying goes: It’s all for the price of a library card.

The Orlando Public Library in Florida offers not only meeting rooms but also studios with simulators for operating forklifts and excavators, driving vehicles and flying an airplane, giving individuals the opportunity to learn new skills that could translate into a job.

The library at Lakeview Elementary in Oklahoma offers coding classes to inspire a new generation of programmers and engineers that will help fill the more than half a million open computing jobs in America.

Stanford University Library in California offers summer coding boot camps that teach graduate students and researchers in science-related fields basic skills for scientific computing that improve productivity and facilitate research collaboration.

These libraries might seem like exceptions, rather than the norm, but thanks to internet-enabled technologies and platforms, libraries have access to far more than they did just a quarter of a century ago. Seemingly infinite information resources, services, training programs and more are all now available with just the click of a button.

Internet-connected libraries provide a valuable resource to our citizens: knowledge and learning opportunities. And in that light, it becomes clear they’re really part of our national infrastructure. As the world rapidly becomes more connected, Americans will need more, not less, of those resources. And who better to enable that access and help navigate the vast wealth of information than the trained experts in the library? There’s a reason that Andrew Carnegie once called the library “a never-failing spring in the desert.”

Now, more than ever, Americans in the industrial heartland and across the nation are in need of access to that spring of knowledge.

This is especially true when you consider how difficult it can be for those in rural communities to obtain a high-quality, reliable internet connection. About one-fourth of American adults are still without high-speed broadband in their homes, which makes libraries even more essential.

Libraries offer an unrivaled national infrastructure already in place to make progress in the digital economy and deliver economic opportunity for all. They are the ideal location for the sharing economy and other entrepreneurial possibilities enabled by the internet.

No one disputes that the internet is no longer a luxury for Americans. But by this same logic, libraries are also no longer a luxury. If your only access to high-speed internet and robust digital content is through a library, then the library is just as indispensable.

Now is not the time to allow such valuable infrastructure to crumble. Instead of cutting or eliminating federal funds for libraries, we should strengthen their capacity to deliver opportunity to everyone through the internet.

The world is only going to become more digital and more connected. We must invest in linking every American into this new economy with robust high-speed broadband and 21st century libraries and librarians to create economic opportunity, jobs and success for our country.

 

Michael Beckerman is president and CEO of the Internet Association, which represents leading internet companies. Julie Todaro is president of the American Library Association, the oldest and largest library association in the world.

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