Internet Access and Public Libraries

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.


14 thoughts on “Internet Access and Public Libraries

  1. Not wanting to be a pedant but it’s important to note that Barking has NOT been an Essex library since 1965. Internet access in Essex Libraries continues to be free.

    1. Thanks Steve, I was locating it geographically in reference to where the library but will edit for clarity.

      1. Thanks Lauren 🙂 Hate to see Essex get a bad name & we’re far too often confused with the outer London boroughs…and don’t even get me started with the unitary authorities of Southend & Thurrock!

  2. An excellent summary of what I see as a very slippery slope. As someone who worked in public libraries up until 18months ago I can vouch first hand how valuable having any free time on the computers is. I have a very strong memory of a man who came in needing to use the web to apply for jobs. He’d recently been made redundant, didn’t have a computer at home and would come in every day to get his allocated 30 minutes free time. While £12 might work out more economical for someone who regularly pays for extra time it could be an insurmountable barrier for the unemployed or homeless. That recently redundant man was by no means unique and I always felt bad charging customers for extra time when they were struggling to fill out online application forms for jobs. I feel very sorry for the frontline teams who will have to implement this.

    The worrying thing is that there will be transformation teams and consultants in local authoritie around the country watching the public response. If Barking get away with it then you can guarantee that others will follow soon. I’ll be making a private bet that they’ll be one Northwest authority watching very closely.

    I’d be interested to know if it is just the web they are charging for or general computer access? I’m thinking of the many people who would come in to write CVs rather than use the web.

  3. I am sorry but am I missing something here?

    The idea of providing free internet access in public libraries was to make it available for everyone, regardless of ability to pay. Ten year’s ago, there may have been people on good incomes who simply hadn’t got round to getting connected at home, but today it is almost entirely used by the low-paid and people on benefits, along with asylum seekers, children and a few students. To tax the poorest members of our society for a facility which is pretty much a necessity (to access goods and services as well as to apply for jobs and courses) is about as retrogressive as it comes.

    Can it really be true that a Labour, a LABOUR council is introducing this charge?

  4. Hi,
    I don’t agree with charges. My local charges after one hour. For a while, my husband and I couldn’t afford the Internet and he used to use the library to fill out online applications. Those forms regularly took more than an hour and the money added up. Luckily, we managed to get a good Internet deal which ended up working out cheaper than the library!

  5. This seems a strange decision by Barking & Dagenham, not least because it is not a stand-alone service but a member of the London Libraries Consortium, as are all its immediate neighbours (Havering, Newham and Redbridge). 
    Since LLC authorities offer reciprocal services to their co-users, and the others continue to offer free PN access, we may see Barking & Dagenham users who are able to do so voting with their feet: it’s only 3km from Barking Central Library to its counterpart in Redbridge, for example.

    Additionally, the Barking & Dagenham has some of the poorest wards in Greater London in terms of income –
    – and property values – 
    Also, it has the capital’s third-highest unemployement rate among working-age adults – 

    Not surprisingly, therefore, the borough has one of the capital’s lowest levels of domestic PC ownership
    (2001 figures, sorry, but still relevant).

    All in all, a strange move.

  6. My printer at home recently broke and just paying the costs for printing at the local library made me really sit up and think about how much I take for granted. When you are used to having internet and PC access at home and being confident to use them it is so hard to put yourself into the shoes of people who don’t have such access. It seems a shame that the people making these decisions don’t seem to have done that.

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