For Those in the Digital Dark, Enlightenment Is Borrowed From the Library
The Combined Book Team September 11, 2014

Joey Cabrera stands for part of most evenings on the doorstep of the Clason’s Point Library, near 172nd Street and Morrison Avenue in the Bronx.

There, he taps into the Wi-Fi that seeps out of the library after it closes. He checks in on Tumblr, Snapchat, Facebook — “the usual stuff,” he said — and plays Lost Saga, a video game developed in Korea. “Formerly, I played Minecraft, but this is less mainstream, an inside thing with my friends,” Joey said.
Then there is a basic maneuver in skateboarding that he is mastering, thePop Shove It. He studies the technique at the library doorstep.
“I’ve gone to YouTube multiple times to see how to do it,” he said.
Like most homes in his part of the Bronx, Joey’s apartment has no Internet access. Even before the library opens for the day, people stand outside, polishing résumés, then dash in at the crack of 10 a.m. to use the printers. “Then they get right on the train for job interviews,” said Wanda Luzon, the manager of the Clason’s Point Branch of the New York Public Library.
Joey, 15, who is going to be a sophomore in high school, arrives at the end of the day, after he is finished at the year-round academic enrichment program he attends in Manhattan. He walks a block from the Westchester Avenue el, then settles in at the library until closing time, which is 7 p.m. on Mondays. Then he continues his online session through the library’s network.
“I’ve got an hour before sunset, when it gets dangerous,” Joey said.
As he spoke, a young woman nearby finished her online sidewalk session and moved on.
The branch library is the village well.
For most of the city, two companies, Time Warner and Verizon, provide broadband access, at an annual cost of close to $1,000 per home. For many houses, that means no access at all. About 2.9 million people in the city were in the digital dark, according to a 2010 study by the Center for Technology and Government at the University at Albany, part of the State University of New York. In the city’s libraries, 68 percent of the people who make under $25,000 and are using the computers do not have Internet access at home.
“Imagine that in the information capital of the world, kids are camped out on the stoops of libraries to do their online math homework,” said Anthony W. Marx, the president of the New York Public Library, the city’s leading provider of free Internet access.
Andrew Rasiej, the chairman of NY Tech Meetup and an advocate for broadband access at low cost, has lobbied Mr. Marx. “I asked him, ‘You let people check out books, why don’t you let them check out the Internet?’ ” Mr. Rasiej said.
The library decided to try lending people a small box that plugs into a wall and provides wireless Internet service for up to five users at a time. To pay for the boxes, and a $10 monthly subscription, the library got a $500,000 grant last month from the Knight News Challenge, enough to equip 2,000 people. “We’re looking for another $1.5 million in private donations to get to 10,000 households in all five boroughs, and libraries in Kansas and Maine,” Mr. Marx said.
It won’t go far: You can find 10,000 homes inside a few blocks in New York. But pots of government money, fed by surcharges on phone bills, could pay to expand the program if it works, Mr. Marx said. Mr. Rasiej argues that low-cost Internet access ought to be a public function.
“The same way government provides pristine water,” he said.
Standing on a Bronx street, Joey Cabrera heard the story of another person interested in skateboards and computers.
Near the end of World War II, a Navy technician named Douglas Engelbart read an essay predicting technical advances that could change the way people think. After the war, Mr. Engelbart figured out ways humans could interact with computers. During a 90-minute presentation at a conference in December 1968, he demonstrated virtually all the elements of modern computing: networking, windows, links, word processing and a gadget called the mouse.
Asked in 1997 where the computer would be in 30 years, Mr. Engelbart invoked the wild tricks done on skateboards, none of them anticipated by the first builders of the boards. “You couldn’t give them the engineering and tell them to go out and do that,” he said. “Fifteen years ago, who could have designed that?”
And that was how it would be for computers, he said.
Joey, who hopes to design online games, agreed. The idea of bringing home Internet access from the library dazzled him. “I can’t even begin,” he said, “to imagine the opportunities that would create.”


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