The big city library as Internet provider


The New York Public Library's Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. (Jeffrey Zeldman under a Creative Commons Attribution license)

As our Brian Fung detailed last week, some of the United States' bigger urban library systems have begun lodging a public protest against the formula federal rulemakers are considering for the distribution of billions of dollars for wireless Internet infrastructure. The Federal Communications Commission is thinking of divvying up so-called E-Rate funds to libraries based on square footage rather than users or some other metric, a calculation that city libraries argue gives an unfair advantage to their more sprawling suburban counterparts.

And now perhaps the biggest name in the U.S. public libraries has dipped into the debate. On Thursday, the New York Library system — a billion-dollar entity with 92 branches and some 17 million volumes — sent a letter to the FCC under the signature of Anthony W. "Tony" Marx, its chief executive and president. Marx reiterated the "smaller footprints but higher attendance rates" argument made by his peers in Hartford, Memphis, Seattle and elsewhere, but he put a local twist on it, writing that Internet access and Internet-enabled training programs, like ESL classes, are "essential in helping to address the inequalities we face in New York City and across the country."

NYPL’s outreach to the FCC is eye-catching for a few reasons. Putting aside the library’s sheer size, the 119-year-old system has a cultural significance that goes even beyond the opening scene of  "Ghostbusters." The library has long been a core part of New York life, only now it finds itself in a city where the mayor is aggressively trying to rework how people get broadband. Mayor Bill de Blasio has talked about using his administration’s considerable purchasing power — the City of New York buys a lot of broadband — to help drive down costs for other consumers. In an interview, Marx said that the library has been doing something similar to bring digital resources to the public: "We negotiated with the commercial publishers to be able to offer e-books," and they now buy about 45,000 digital book copies a year.

“Increasingly, the library has so much more to offer online,” Marx said, “and people are lining up for hours for our computers at our branches.”

In a bid to even out supply and demand, Marx said, NYPL has been experimenting with a program that allows schoolchildren in the city to borrow, for months at a time, personal and portable WiFi hotspots. The pilot project, called "Check Out the Internet," has captured the attention of funders; late last month, the Knight Foundation put a half-million dollars behind rolling out the program to 10,000 New York City households. Marx said he thinks the loaner hotspot program could scale up to offer a new twist to how Americans more broadly get online.

"We can't have a functioning economy or an informed democracy if a third of the population is excluded from primary sources of information,” said Marx, adding of the organization he leads, "maybe we can help." (One logistics note: Asked whether the library worries about people running off with the hotspots, Marx pointed out that librarians can simply flip the switch and cut off service to them. Try that with an ink-and-paper book.)

Of course, there’s a big difference between a library lending out WiFi hotspots and serving as a true Internet service provider. For one thing, someone still needs to connect cities to Internet backbones, and that is work still almost exclusively done by for-profit companies such as Verizon and Time Warner Cable.  But what the New York Public Library is up to seems to signals a shift from thinking of the public library as a spot on the map where people go to get online to a public institution that helps people get onto the Internet.

That’s probably reason enough to keep a close eye on them as the FCC and others wrestle with what Internet access will look like by the time "Ghostbusters III" finally comes out.

Nancy Scola is a reporter who covers the intersections of technology and public policy, politics, and governance.
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Brian Fung · July 7