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Fund libraries to close Chicago’s digital divide

Updated: November 19, 2013 11:50PM

While public libraries may seem like a thing of the past, they are key to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to turn Chicago into a global technology leader. Public libraries help train people to become adept at using the Internet and, in so doing, close the digital divide. That’s why it is crucial that libraries get the funding necessary to thrive.

The mayor’s recently released Chicago Tech Plan aims to harness the power of new Internet-based technologies to fuel opportunity and innovation in Chicago. It lays out several initiatives to achieve its goals, with a substantial focus on improving Internet literacy so all Chicagoans can join the broadband revolution.

Chicago residents today have near-universal access to broadband Internet thanks to private sector leaders who have invested more than $1.2 trillion since 1996 to build our country’s Internet infrastructure. But universal adoption continues to be elusive.

Many individuals lack the training to make use of Internet tools. Others don’t own the necessary computer hardware, and some just don’t think the Internet is relevant to their lives.

The state of broadband competition in America can give us hope that Chicagoans can adopt the Internet at greater rates. The U.S. ranks third among Organisation for Economic Co-operation countries for wired broadband choices; 94 percent of Americans have access to a wired broadband provider. Today, mobile wireless also is becoming a real competitor to wired Internet service. In fact, 82 percent of Americans had a choice of at least four wireless broadband providers in 2012, an increase from 68 percent in 2010.

Libraries can be the critical link to helping people overcome these challenges. They provide free high-speed Internet access, a computer to anyone who wishes to use one and hands-on assistance to teach people how they can benefit from new digital tools.

The Chicago Tech Plan rightfully recognizes these opportunities offered by the Chicago Public Library system and promotes a number of ideas that would capitalize on them. Unfortunately, the plan neglects to address the fundamental obstacle to implementing them: the underfunding of public libraries.

Without the proper resources, libraries and their users will continue to suffer from inadequate operating hours, outdated hardware and fewer staff. Mayor Emanuel himself recently cut millions of dollars from the Chicago Public Library budget.

If the mayor is serious about creating communities that are empowered by technology, he must reverse course and restore proper funding to Chicago’s libraries. Considering the extensive network of libraries that are already located throughout the city, improving their services would only serve to jump-start his plan and produce immediate results.

For example, the majority of libraries now closed on Sundays could be opened seven days a week. With increased operating hours, there would be additional opportunities for residents to learn how to use Internet-based technologies.

The benefits to this newly digitally literate citizenry would be substantial. New doors to education and health care would be opened, and perhaps most importantly, residents would become equipped with the skills needed to join an Internet economy that employs more than 6 million people.

Considering Chicago’s unemployment rate is still an extraordinarily high 11.2 percent, giving residents every advantage possible to access new Internet-based jobs would be welcome news. These industries are only continuing to grow, as exemplified by the app economy — which didn’t exist before 2007 — that now directly employs nearly 20,000 people in Chicago, and 750,000 nationwide.

As Mayor Emanuel continues to implement his technology plan, it is imperative that he recognize the vital role libraries can play in achieving its goals. By committing to funding libraries today, he will help close the digital divide and lay the foundation for Chicago to become a national innovation leader.

John Chrastka is the founder of EveryLibrary, which works at a local level to create, renew and protect public funding for libraries.

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