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One of the modern-day rationales for bigger, more expensive public libraries is free internet computers. Supposedly, a vast number of San Diegans lack internet access. Maybe that was true 10 years ago, but not today. It’s sad to see library lovers flailing around for such silly reasons to justify not only maintaining but expanding public libraries.
Today, computers are a cheap commodity. A netbook computer can be purchased new for under $300. Fully functioning used desktop systems can go for under $100 — about the price of two expensive video games for a PlayStation III.
Today, almost all students have computers or have ready access to them. In addition to home systems and portables, they have computers at school. Within three years, most schools will probably issue students cheap laptop computers with the textbooks uploaded — less expensive than printed books.
Internet connections are everywhere — home and business Wi-Fi, cable, phone lines, etc. Additionally, internet cafes offer internet computers at cheap per-hour rates.
But, suppose we still desire to offer more free access to the internet on computers (an idea I do not personally support), for our business model, we should look to (of all places) the U.S. Post Office. The post office contracts with local stores to serve as mini-post offices, making such service much more convenient to the public.
Similarly, the city could contract with cafes, coffee shops or fast food outlets to provide such free computer service, paying annually as much as $15,000 to $20,000 per location (including buying and maintaining perhaps 10 basic internet-connected computers). These small, struggling businesses would benefit from the steady core revenue, plus the ancillary revenue from the computer users making other purchases.
The free computers could be geographically positioned in areas where such service is most needed, not housed in a few library buildings that are inconvenient to get to and are too often closed to the public.
The results? Far cheaper and far better service. At $20K per coffee shop, $1 million annually would provide 50 such locations. Furthermore, this business model would entail little in the way of operating costs or liabilities — unlike the library, where overpriced government employees are expected to help patrons navigate the internet (or play games, view porn or whatever).
The downside? No ribbon-cutting photo op for the politicians comparable with the grand opening of a two-hundred-million-dollar library.
We still need lending libraries — the core library function — but we don’t need bigger and better computer terminal libraries. That’s an idea relegated to the previous century. It’s time we start thinking outside the library box.
Richard Rider is chairman of San Diego Tax Fighters and lives in Scripps Ranch.