It is an argument made since the Internet came to dominate American life: we no longer need libraries full of dusty old tomes because now everyone can use the Internet. However, these arguments ignore the reality of what libraries are, the services they provide, and the people they serve. Below, I demonstrate why libraries continue to remain necessary for our communities.
Not Everyone Has Access to the Internet
A fact sheet published by the Pew Research Center in February 2018 shows that about 75% of Americans have broadband Internet at home. 10% of smartphone users access the Internet only through their phone, meaning that the number of Americans with Internet access is probably slightly higher than 75%. Indeed, a March 2018 report by the Pew Research Center shows that only 11% of Americans do not use the Internet at all–some because they were not interested, some because they thought their age meant they were too old to learn, and 19% of those 11% because Internet or a device to access it were too expensive. Despite the gains the in Internet usage across the country, racial minorities, individuals with low incomes, and individuals who have less education or live in rural areas are still less likely to access the Internet.
Individuals who oppose funding libraries may argue that 11% of Americans is a small percentage and that their needs do not warrant government spending on providing them services. However, libraries exist to promote equal access. It is their mission to provide services and opportunities to the community that would otherwise not exist.
Consider that, even if an individual wanted to access free WiFi at a restaurant or a cafe, they would have to pay something to enter the door and justify their presence in a business–even if they only purchase a coffee. They also would need to own a personal device to access the Internet. And accessing the Internet is largely what they would be able to do–they likely would not be able to print, fax, scan, or copy because cafes do not provide these services. If they needed help troubleshooting their device or learning how to use a mouse or creating an email or accessing their tax forms, the cafe staff likely would not be available to help them. Libraries, however, allow individuals to enter and stay without paying, provide devices to patrons, and are available to offer technical support. In short, they offer services no one else does.
Not Everything Is Available on the Internet
Opponents of funding libraries often argue that libraries are now irrelevant because “everything is on the Internet.” However, even if an individual can access the Internet, not everything is available there quite yet. It is quite possible to run a search for a specialized or obscure topic and come up with few relevant sources. Even if you ran a search on a topic that might seem popular, such as local ghost stories, you might not find a lot– you would still be better off going to your local bookstore and searching the shelves. Some topics simply are still more available in print than online. This is especially true of the scholarly, peer-reviewed sources many students are asked to use in academia.
Much of What the Internet Has to Offer Is Not Free
We also have to consider that much of what we can access on the Internet is not free. For instance, students asked to find peer-researched sources will likely have to find a print book or an article from a journal. Print journals are now digitized for easier access–but they require a paid subscription. Libraries typically pay for these so their patrons do not have to. Non-academic periodicals also often require subscriptions. Libraries pay for magazines and newspaper so patrons never have to run up against a pay wall while trying to follow national politics or read the latest on their favorite celebrities.
Besides periodicals, libraries also offer a range of resources that may include: genealogy and ancestry programs, language courses, film streaming, Lynda or Universal classes, music subscriptions, and academic databases for students. Many of these program and services are available elsewhere on the Internet, but not all of them are free. Or perhaps some of the free versions are not as thorough as the paid versions.
And what about books? Yes, there are thousands of books available online free and legally. However, if someone wanted to read something like Harry Potter or another book that has not gone out of copyright they would, again, have to pay. The argument that we do not need libraries because we have the Internet assumes that individuals have enough money to pay for everything the Internet has to offer. For many individuals, this is simply not true.
The Cost of Libraries
Oftentimes, opponents of libraries will suggest that libraries are too expensive. However, when we take into account all of the services libraries offer from books, music, films, and video games to literacy programs, STEAM programs, and community forums, it is evident that libraries are, in reality, priceless. Currently, taxpayers in my city pay under $20 each year to support the library. Checking out one book, watching one film, or even using the Internet a couple times, already means that I have saved money. There is no way I could personally afford to read a hundred books each year, watch a dozen films, take a couple classes, pay for monthly Internet, and do research, all on my own. I simply could not afford it. Offering all these things for under $20 is the possibly the best use my city makes of my tax dollars every year.