Say you had trouble getting to and from places. You received some money to fix your transportation problem. Would you decide to start by building a house?

Imagine you’re Barack Obama, circa 2007, and you decide you want to connect campaign volunteers and supporters unlike any candidate ever has. Would the first thing you do be to construct a huge headquarters?

As we’ve noted, there are some baffling ironies surrounding the huge schoobrary proposal: the U-T supporting government spending as a jobs creation program; the school district supporting and building a charter school; the mayor proposing to close branch libraries and cutting back hours while still supporting this massive new one.

But among the best of ironies is to watch library boosters advocate for their project by claiming it will help the people connect to the internet — the very technology that demands we redesign our image of what an information center of the future should look like.

Let’s be clear: There are few infrastructure inadequacies as shocking as the number of people in this country who are not connected to the internet.

Alberto Ibargüen, the president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation (which is a financial supporter of, recently testified in Congress and has written extensively about profound social consequences of having so many people not connected to the internet.

As he pointed out, even to get a job at Wal-Mart or McDonald’s, you now must submit an application on the internet. Yet only half of households in the United States have broadband internet access.

The Wall Street Journal recently ran one of the most thought-provoking stories I have read all year about homeless people who live without shelter or without reliable sources of food but who know that if they lost connection to the internet and social networking websites, they would really lose connection to the world.

In other words, I get it. There is a train leaving and some of the poorest people are not on board. And the more time that passes, the farther the train will go and the harder it will be for them to catch it.

The main library boosters recognize this. So talking about the hundreds of computers, wi-fi and data ports that will be made available at the library has become a huge point.

But if what we want to do is connect people to all of the fascinating ways they can communicate and receive their news and information, the last thing we should do is waste valuable infrastructure dollars on a massive building.

The city is using $80 million of downtown redevelopment money to pay for the library. The boosters are correct when they point out that this money can’t be used to pay for people who actually work inside libraries or other city staff. It has to be used for infrastructure and bricks and mortar.

So let’s pretend that providing people access to information and the internet is 40 percent of the purpose of the new main library. That’s $32 million dollars. If we wanted to provide downtown residents access to the internet — which offers more resources (and more every day) than the main library will ever provide — is this really the best way to spend $32 million? There are roughly 35,000 residents downtown right now. I bet that we could ensure that every single one of them — at a little less than $1,000 a person — had broadband access for that much money.

And since most of them can afford it anyway, I bet we could incentivize developers and landlords and build infrastructure to ensure that the city’s least privileged residents have the best chance possible to connect.

How much would wireless internet throughout downtown cost? How much would that increase the amount of people who came to spend time in the area’s plazas and cafes? How many San Diegans are without access to the internet and how many truly would be served by this building?

I don’t know the answer to these questions. But if making sure our residents have access to crucial information is the goal, a true leader would at least ask these questions and more.

Connecting as many people as possible to as much information as possible, though, is certainly not the goal of city leaders enamored with the new downtown library. If it were, I can’t imagine you’d start, in the 21st century, by constructing a large building.


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