There’s been a lot of discussion on Twitter about Barking Library (run by the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham) introducing annual fees for internet access:
It’s not gone down very well. The main arguments are that charging for internet access prevents those on low incomes (the people who need it the most) from accessing the service, that there’s a clear divide between the haves and have nots of Barking (wifi appears to be free for those with their own devices) and that it undermines the public library ethos and the spirit in which the People’s Network was set up.
Barking aren’t the first library to start charging for access, but from my memories of collecting information for the national Fines and Charges database, and the information I’ve been able to find online, there aren’t many that don’t at least offer an hour or so free for all users per day – in 2010, 79 per cent of library services in English Local Authorities did not charge for internet access at all and a further 12 per cent did not make any charge for the first hour (The Information Daily). I have issues with any charging for internet access after a certain time limit, so needless to say that I completely disagree with charging outright. Phil Bradley sums it up excellently, as does Leanne.
I have some other half-formed thoughts that I wanted to get down in blog form very quickly, so this isn’t by any means fully thought through, but what strikes me is that there are serious issues about equity of access to information here. By introducing a financial barrier, library services are directly preventing people from having equal access to information resources. Along the lines of Gorman’s Eight Central Values of Librarianship, I really do think that librarians and library services should be resources to level the playing field when it comes to access to electronic resources of all kinds. (As an aside, the digital divide isn’t just about economically poor vs. rich, it’s about information poverty too, which can affect anyone, and is why libraries need to offer information support and educational resources for everyone.) There are issues about ensuring that everyone has access to information in order to be able to participate fully in the democratic process (whether or not they want to or intend to is another matter, but there’s a duty to make sure that people can at least inform themselves), and issues about people who don’t have home access to the internet being able to conduct financial and governmental transactions and processes that are (or will be) online only.
This is something that needs to be taken seriously, and that libraries and local authorities should be prepared to convincingly justify if they decide to charge. Whether or not you agree that access to the internet should be a human right, it already is in several countries. The UN declaration stated that access to the internet enables ”individuals, communities and peoples to achieve their full potential in promoting their sustainable development and improving their quality of life”. I’m not sure I want to live in a country that doesn’t fully endorse that view and ensure that its social policies and public resources reflect it.