Out of the Digital Dark

By Tony Marx, President of The New York Public Library

It is now conceivable to read almost anything online, anytime, and to connect with almost anyone with shared interests. Researchers could follow a lead or find any image, novelists pursue any thread, and students collaborate on the latest information.

Imagine the creativity unleashed by no longer having to wait to find a book, searching through boxes of archives, or traveling to see any collection. The Gutenberg revolution, spreading information through the printed word, looks puny by comparison.

But that is not yet the world we live in, even if technology has made it possible.

Today, there are students in New York City sitting on the stoops of libraries after hours, trying to get wi-fi leaking out of the branches so they can finish their homework. Indeed, about 2.5 million New Yorkers and roughly 90 million Americans cannot afford home broadband Internet access. They face barriers connecting with friends and family, doing research, preparing and applying for jobs.

Amid a revolution of information technology, we risk leaving many behind. Those who cannot afford digital subscriptions now have less access online than they did when all of us relied on physical library materials. Our neighbors are left to collect information crumbs on the stoop.

In the 21st century everyone should have a way to connect online and find anything they need. Otherwise, the digital divide will only magnify the effects of a fragmented society and insufficient prosperity.

There are some signs of progress. The FCC is exploring how to ensure "net neutrality" so that the poor are not relegated to slow lanes of connectivity, while also providing enough profits to increase quality of service. But if you cannot afford any connection, even the most equitable offerings do no good.

Free Internet at school or the library can help -- and millions of New Yorkers do rely on library computers, lining up for their turn. But neighborhood libraries are closed far too often (most are shuttered on Sundays) and students spend less than 20 percent of their time in school. Placing wi-fi hotspots in New York City phone booths is a great step, but still doesn't allow hours of work at home.

One experiment comes from the City's libraries, which are now lending free wi-fi hotspots to 10,000 households without Internet -- and to see how this works in rural environments, we are partnering with libraries in Kansas and Maine. Initial studies show increased use for education and research. Mayor de Blasio and funders including Google and the Knight, Open Society, and Robin Hood Foundations see this as a way to prove we can end the digital divide.

If this program works as well as a successful trial we ran last spring, the FCC could make it a national program to supplement the antiquated federal Lifeline program for low income families, which subsidizes landlines, pagers, and dial-up Internet (remember that?).

Of course, beyond wi-fi access, there are many links in the chain to providing the public in the poorest neighborhoods with full access to information, from computer training and classes in coding, to delivering book sets directly to teachers. Libraries are making progress on each of these fronts -- and as we do, we are expanding the role of a library. Now, not only do we provide access to books and a space between home and work for citizens to think, dream and grow - our neighborhood branches offer educational programs for students and immigrants, and as a result libraries have never been used more.

But the biggest challenge, beyond what we can do in our buildings, remains to provide all of the world's content online and to help people find what they need. All books should be available physically but also electronically from the library -- with authors paid fairly for their efforts. Archives and images could be digitized on demand. Experts and crowd-sourcing can help provide links, navigation and curation.

That is the ultimate opportunity of the information age -- a difficult but worthy task, and an essential one for those otherwise left in the digital dark.

There is then a path to full access to information that enables everyone to be part of an informed and creative society. We need to make sure that all content is available, with fast and quality connections to it, for those who cannot now afford it to be part of the information age. That path is neither perfect nor easy, but it would nonetheless be breathtaking in its ensuring a skilled workforce, informed citizenry and robust civic life.

Gutenberg would be impressed.