Barrier: Illinois Library Charges $1 for Computer Access

http://www.dailysouthtown.com/news/530744,281NWS2.article

An article by Angela Caputo gets me thinking about learning and libraries this morning, and frankly, I am a little scared:

That’s the computer-access rule at the Sauk Village public library.

And it’s drawing criticism from one local school board member who challenges the policy as another barrier to technology for some of the region’s poorest children.

“Seventy-six percent of our kids are from poor families … Their parents can’t afford to buy technology, and they’re computer illiterate too,” said Marvin Perez, who sits on the Community Consolidated Schools District 168 board of education.

“Why do you charge kids to use computers?” he said.

Officials from District 168 and the Sauk Village library say they’re not convinced the library bears responsibility for offering free computer access to schoolchildren. But in neighboring south suburban library districts, technology programs for students are flourishing by design.

And this:

Library director Nanette Wargo — who maintains there never was a firm deal — said the library has little interest in increasing computer access for children anyway.

“You can do a lot of learning without a computer,” said Wargo, who said the usage fees merely are a way to offset the cost of maintaining the library’s four computers on a tight budget. She points to neighboring communities such as Harvey and Dolton that also charge similar fees.

The lack of interest in enhancing access to technology, particularly among children unlikely to have it at home, has Perez scratching his head.

“We’re being left behind,” Perez said. “Our schools are not doing anything. Our library is not doing anything.”

This troubles me on many levels. I feel for the young people that won’t get access to technology at their library when nearby programs are flourishing. I also worry about the long range effect this type of thinking will have on the library itself. “Our library is not doing anything” and “You can do a lot of learning without a computer” are a strong, telling statements that fall on opposite sides of the spectrum.

Think of all the opportunities these young people will miss with an attitude like that. I agree that books, discussion, journaling, etc are all ways to learn — and I use them in my classroom – but access to the wide world of technology, thriving social, learning communities, instructional games, and digital libraries of information has totally changed the way many children will experience the world.

Public perception of the library and the changes in the way kids learn and meet the world SHOULD be on the minds of the library staff and governing bodies at this library. What does this mean for the future? Will the kids that couldn’t pay for internet access even care about the library in ten years? What do you think?

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2 thoughts on “Barrier: Illinois Library Charges $1 for Computer Access”

  1. Michael,

    I actually know a lot about this situation, because that library director referenced in the article is my mother, and the McConathy Public Library in Sauk Village is the first library I ever worked in, back in the early 1990s.

    The reporter who wrote the article left out quite a bit of what my mother told her–namely, that they only have four computers at their library, and it has been a long-standing policy that children under 16 aren’t allowed to use the computers by themselves. This is a policy that was set by the board many years ago and that they’ve kept a hold of, mainly to avoid adding filters to the computers. Children are allowed to use the computers with a parent present–and they do.

    They charge $1 because, frankly, there’s no other way they can AFFORD to provide computer access in any other way. They use a lot of donated equipment (I think two of their printers are my old printers, and one of their computers belonged to my dad). My husband and I have gone in and upgraded their computers for them several times. It’s a small community and they don’t have a lot of money. The reason those “nearby programs” are flourishing? THEY HAVE MONEY. Geographically, they’re “nearby,” but fiscally, they’re worlds apart. Oak Lawn is far from a poor library, and it’s not a small community by any stretch of the imagination. Tinley Park has a budget that’s probably at least five times the size of McConathy’s budget. They aren’t relying on donated equipment to provide access. And guess what? People are using the computers at the library. They’d love to add MORE computers if they had the money. But they don’t, and given the budget situation for libraries in Illinois, I doubt they’ll have the money any time soon.

    I talked to my mother last night about this (after I read the article) and she told me that several comments that she made were misconstrued by the reporter, and that Mr. Perez was invited to come to a library board meeting to discuss his concerns with the board (who, as in most public libraries, set policy for the library) and he did not show up.

    Maybe I’m extra-defensive because hey, that’s my mom, and she’s not some kind of regressive, anti-technology, child-hating, social-network-fearing freak. She’s not disinterested in increasing access to technology. She’s just more interested in keeping the place open and staffed and keeping materials on the shelves for people to use than in turning the place into a giant computer lab that they can’t afford to maintain in the first place.

    Feel free to be outraged, but I wanted to present another point of view and remind you that sometimes journalists don’t cover every side of the story, especially when they can make an issue seem more exciting than it really is.

  2. Hi, Nan!

    I don’t believe anyone thinks your mom is a technophobic freak, but I’d be defensive after an article like this, too. When I first read it, my big question was about why the Library isn’t accepting the six computers and $1000 to help maintain them.

    I certainly understand being misquoted by reporters or having things taken out of context, but honestly, I’m confused by this decision since I’ve been to the McConathy Library and helped install software on those four computers. Your characterization of the institution is spot-on, which is why I don’t understand not taking up the school district on its offer. Ten computers wouldn’t make the Library a giant computer lab, and I think it’s important for them to pursue every possibility. This Library – and these kids – need all the help they can get, moreso than their nearby richer neighbors, so I’d love to hear more about the context for this decision. Maybe someone from the Board can provide this?

    To me, the Library is the single *best* place to give these kids the kind of access to online information that they need, and I’ve always been a strong advocate for libraries as community centers and information gateways. I would hope McConathy would embrace that role, in addition to the books one. It’s part of the learning cycle, and I’m not sure any other institution in Sauk Village can fill that role.

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