Last week there was a bit of a furore over the following tweet by Barking libraries:
New Internet charges start today: £12 resident. £25 non-res. 1 year subs. Don’t forget!
— Barking Library (@BarkingLibrary) July 2, 2012
Librarians (including yours truly) lined up to express exactly what they thought about this policy, despite the fact that Barking are hardly pioneers in charging for internet access. Indeed, many authorities have charged for this service for many years. Regardless of whether it is a “new” idea or one that has been already been implemented by some library authorities, the idea is not a good one.
I won’t go into the many reasons why I think this is the case here. Instead of writing a whole host of reasons why this is clearly detrimental, I will just point you to my series of blog posts here. But the basic principle is clear. Internet access should be provided and it should be provided free of charge. What makes decisions such as those by Barking even more concerning is that fact that they have been taken at a time of deep economic recession. A time when unemployment is likely to rise. A time when people those that cannot afford the necessary equipment will be looking for somewhere where they can connect, they can search for jobs and they can get the support they require. Taking this away (and cheerily so – note the smiley at the end of the tweet) is a very damaging move. It is also worth noting that Barking have confirmed that the unemployed are not excluded from the new charge.
Whilst I am deeply concerned about any moves away from the provision of free internet access, I have a broader concern about such policy decisions. My biggest concern is that policy decisions such as these seem to be taken in isolation without broader consideration of the social impact. At a time when Barking are introducing this fee, youth unemployment has grown by 136% in the past year. The library can play a key role in supporting their employment, but by introducing a charge they are surely isolating them further? Too often it appears that decisions such as this are taken on the basis of a need to make up for a shortfall in funds, rather than on the basis of community need. During such economic hardship, there should be a focus on supporting the community rather than looking at the balance sheet and trying to boost the coffers.
Policies such as these may seem small and insignificant when viewed in isolation, but when placed in the context of broader spending cuts or social change (including cuts to benefits) such policies will only deepen the damage already being done to local communities. Unless we stop seeing some of the cuts as isolated tinkering that will have a minimal impact upon our communities, we are in grave danger of allowing our communities to be torn apart whilst we look on helplessly, wondering how we allowed things to get this far.