Seattle – The Seattle Public Library (SPL) system is closed this week, from Monday, August 29th through Sunday September 4th, 2011 due to budget cuts. The Library was told by the City of Seattle that it had to cut its budget by $3.7 million dollars to help the close the City’s budget gap. This measure is in addition to eliminating positions, book budget cuts and continuing to operate 15 branches on reduced hours.
Similar closings, staff reductions and hour reductions are happening all over the nation as states, cities, counties and towns are facing budget cuts due to the economic downturn. According to the Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study (PLFTAS) in the last fiscal year 24 states cut funding to public libraries and public libraries in 13 states were shut down permanently; almost 25% of urban library systems had to cut hours and 15% of ALL public libraries across the nation had to cut hours.
We all know that the library is a great place to find books; from the newest bestsellers, to biographies, to cookbooks, to children’s books for young voracious readers. However, a growing number of library patrons aren’t coming just for the books – they are coming for the Internet access. Basic Internet access is becoming an increasingly important part of life in America and contrary to casual opinion, access is far from universal – which is why libraries are so important beyond just the books.
According to the PLFTAS, over 82% of libraries nationwide (including the SPL) provide Internet access to patrons through workstations and wireless connections. This is important because a U.S. Dept. of Commerce study showed that almost 30% of Americans have no Internet access at home. This group mainly consists of people who are already in a disadvantaged position in society and are even more hampered by a lack of Internet access. Including:
49% of families earning less than $35,000/year
49% of adults with only a high school or GED education
40% of unemployed people
50% of African American households
55% of Hispanic households
Internet access is important to these people because it allows them to take advantage of services and information that is difficult if not impossible to access without an Internet connection.
Many companies have stopped listing job openings in local papers and only advertise online and major companies prefer job seekers to fill out online applications. Internet access for the unemployed may be the key to their finding a job especially in this turbulent economy. The PLFTAS indicates that 88% of libraries around the country have patrons using their computers to look for jobs. In Seattle, a recent survey showed that 42% of computer using patrons looked for jobs online.
State and Federal government agencies have made applying for services much easier to do online than in person. Medicare and Social Security applications can be made quickly and easily through helpful online interfaces rather than poring over forms an arcane guidelines. Many libraries even provide assistance to people filling out government forms online.
Unemployment applications and weekly check-ins must be done online in many states (including Washington), computers are often available at State unemployment offices but that involves a long trip by bus for many, followed by a long wait in line. Library internet access allows people to perform these tasks in much less time allowing more time to actually search for a job.
Closing libraries and cutting hours of operations is more than just reducing access to books and traditional library services. The local library has become a place where low-income and disadvantaged citizens can level the playing field a little bit by being able to access essential services and opportunities on the Internet. Library systems are doing the best they can to stay open reduce the impact of when they must be closed. The SPL closed this week because it is traditionally a low patronage week and Seattle Schools aren’t open yet. Unfortunately, people that rely on the library for Internet access for unemployment, job searches, email and other tasks will be forced to find another access point or more likely go without for the week. It may not seem like a long time for some, but for someone struggling to find a job for the last six months or hoping their Medicare will be approved it could seem like an eternity.