Recently I got access to digital cable its not something that I pay for, but is a nice perk provided by my generous landlady. It made me realize that I am on the über-privileged side of the digital divide: hundreds of TV channels, broadband internet connection. I also have access to non-public material sites such as on Salon and AOL Then through my work I have Westlaw and Lexis passwords, and free interlibrary loans within reason.
My point isnt to brag, but I can say that I have access to a lot of stuff which is out of reach of less privileged people. Before I had access, I had no idea of the type of things that I was missing. Im disturbed to see how effective technology has been in separating information from the haves and have-nots. Ten years ago in Australia, there was no pay-TV and barely a world-wide web (and what there was limited to educational and scientific purposes). The main sources of information were printed publications and the free broadcast media of radio and TV. I know printed magazines and journals have never been exactly cheap, but many of these were freely usable in public and academic libraries.
Is there any way of categorizing information as essential or non-essential information? I wonder if there are some types of information particularly legal and governmental - which all people have a right to access and use in a free society. Especially when society says that ignorance is no excuse for not obeying the law and everyone has equal rights & duties in the political process, irrespective of their income. So does mean that everything else would be non-essential information entertainment for which it is entirely fair that people pay for. Im not sure if theres a clear dividing line between whats essential and whats entertaining. For example, national (and especially local) news provide information without which it would be very difficult to participate in the political process, but they also contain entertainment sections. And if news is essential, then what about magazines or lifestyle programmes aimed at particular groups women, men, different ethnic groups these may contain more entertainment than news, but what news they cover might be the only way that their particular constituents access any news.
Another quandry is with the arts, sciences and other academic disciplines. If its in societys interests that all people are able to make advances in the arts, sciences and other fields of learning, how is this possible if only elites have access to this material? Are we saying that only the elites those with the means to pay for this material have anything to contribute in these areas and that the poor deserve to shut out? Or do we think that great art can happen in a vacuum and that it is not necessary to know of whats been tried before?
The point of all these unanswerable questions is that libraries are the buffer zones or safety net, if you want a different metaphor of the digital information divide. Fund public libraries adequately, and you wont need to answer these questions about who is worthy enough to receive which information. Most importantly, libraries are no longer about books. They are just not about books, microfiche, videos, audio tapes, CDs, DVDs or online databases important as all these things are. Libraries are repositories of information, in whatever form. In an ideal world (and I am allowed to be idealistic and naive sometimes), libraries would collect all useful information which has been broadcast (via TV, radio or the web) and is not otherwise available in fixed formats, such as tapes or discs produced by the broadcaster. </idealism>: Of course, this is not going to happen because of two big reasons. Firstly, libraries are currently too understaffed and underfunded to imagine adding this to their workload. Secondly, this would be against existing copyright laws.