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Libraries and the E-State

01/28/08 7:55AM By Philip Baruth
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(HOST) Commentator Philip Baruth is a novelist who teaches at the University of Vermont, and he’s a strong supporter of Governor Douglas’s "E-State Initiative" - a proposal to provide universal broadband and cellular coverage within Vermont’s borders. But without libraries to close the digital divide, Philip argues, the E in "E-State" could very well come to stand for "Exclusive."

(BARUTH) I served on the Burlington School Board a few years back, and I don’t think I slept four hours a night two nights running, because I was horrified by the financial picture. Then I got off the School Board, and I slept pretty well for a couple of years. Two, anyway - because then I was asked to become a Trustee of the Fletcher Free Library in Burlington, a post I still hold.

And it turned out that Library Board meetings were almost identical to School Board meetings: we talked about money non-stop, why we didn’t have any, and how we could maybe get some more. But there was one big difference: we had to rely primarily on donors, and my first act as a Trustee turned out to be going over a long scroll of donor names, looking for people I knew - people who liked and trusted me - so that I could write them and beg them to give me more money that they didn’t really have.

Don’t get me wrong: I love the Fletcher, and I’m not too proud to beg, but it shouldn’t be that way. Vermont is only one of eight states that refuse to provide State aid to libraries, and, let’s face it, that’s just profoundly embarrassing company to keep.

But more than embarrassing, it cuts sharply across the grain of some of the most forward-looking legislation moving through Montpelier. Back in 2007, Governor Douglas laid out something he called "the E State Initiative" - a proposal to make Vermont the first state to provide universal cellular and broadband coverage anywhere within its borders.

A beautiful idea, but with one nagging practical problem: what do you do if you don’t have a laptop or a desktop? What if software is moving invisibly through the sky all around you, connecting everyone you can see with everyone you can’t see, and you’re left out of the revolution because you have no hardware, and no way to get any?

The answer? you go to the library. But once there, no doubt, you wait in line to get on-line. Because the hard fact of the matter is that in addition to archiving culture and preserving knowledge and teaching kids when they’re not in school, librarians today are also expected to almost single-handedly close the digital divide. And that bridge has to be maintained.

I’m all for the "E-State," in other words - as long as the E doesn’t come to stand for "Exclusive."

When I was a kid, there was always one job that had to be done before you could string the lights on the Christmas tree: you had to check every single bulb individually, because if one was bad, the circuit wouldn’t close, and the whole string would remain dark. It was a hassle, but it prevented an even bigger hassle - getting the string all wound into the evergreen branches, plugging it in, and then having no idea which one of a hundred bulbs needed to be replaced.

I applaud the legislature's attempts to wire up the state of Vermont, and it’s going to be a beautiful thing when the job is done. But I hope we don’t skimp on the State’s libraries in the process, because they’re already set-up institutionally to fill the digital gap. And unless we support them financially in that role, this vast string of fiber-optic Christmas lights we’re working on isn’t going anywhere, not really, not in any ethical or moral sense.

In other words, the system will remain dark until everyone has access to the light.

You can find more commentaries by Philip Baruth at VPR-dot-net.
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