Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore

Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to go to Baltimore for our first case study site, Enoch Pratt Libraries. I learned so many things about research, library systems, public access computing, and — most importantly — I was reminded how lucky I am, and most who read this, are. When I wake up in the morning, I do one of two things that, while it has become a chore, I do compulsively: Check my iPhone or power up my MacBook. On our first morning in Baltimore, we went to the Enoch Pratt Central branch before it opened. What we saw was amazing — at least 30 people waiting outside the doors for it to open like many of us wait outside the Apple store for their latest product. When the doors opened, the people literally ran in, most of them running to get first dibs on public access computers or at least to sign up to reserve time later in the day. What I take for granted every single day with my wifi-enabled phone and internet access at work, school, home, these people have to fight for every single day.

In today’s economic situation, we found that many people were new to using the free computers and internet at the libraries. Whether it is because they couldn’t afford internet access at home, because they no longer had a place to live, or because they had lost their jobs and are in search of employment, the computers at the library serve as a vital component to their lives, just as our iPhones and laptops do.

Through our interviews with library staff, administrators, community members, library patrons, we heard over and over again that if public access computers and free internet were not available at libraries, there would be a tremendous disruption. And by disruption I don’t mean having Facebook down for an hour for maintenance. Rather, the users of these computers would not have any way to search for and apply for jobs, access information about health conditions and medicines, stay connected with family and friends, or just Google whatever they want to — activities many of us take for granted daily.

As one staff member said: “We are THE home computer for so many people.” The next time your connection is running a little slow or your roommate or child is hogging the computer, just imagine having to stand in line every morning to be able to cram in all you do on the computer in 30-minute increments. We need to keep, and increase, access to computers in libraries.