ANNAPOLIS – Jean Johnson, director of Somerset County’s four public libraries, said she came to Annapolis this week because there will always be someone out there who can’t afford to get on-line.
“We keep up (on this technology) for the people who can’t afford this,” Johnson said. Her libraries – like all Maryland public libraries-provide free Internet access.
Johnson and more than 200 other information technology professionals attended the American Society of Mechanical Engineers’ third information technology summit this week here to talk about Maryland’s performance in making Internet access available across regional, economic and racial divides.
When U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore, talked about the “digital divide” in Maryland, she knew from first-hand experience that it was real.
“It used to be called the information haves and the information have-nots,” Johnson said.
That wall between the haves and have-nots is rising in some cases, and the digital divide will be the economic civil rights movement of the 21st century, Cummings said.
“If you don’t have the opportunity, you’re not going anywhere fast,” he said.
Like Cummings, Johnson is a believer in the power of the Information Age.
When she wired her first libraries to the Internet seven years ago, in the towns of Princess Anne and Crisfield, she saw customers she hadn’t seen in a “long, long time.” She was especially amazed to see teen-age boys coming to the library, surfing the Internet for NFL information or college sports scores and carrying printouts they made.
“That was stunning to me,” she said. “They don’t know they’re reading.”
The Princess Anne library now has 12 terminals, all of them constantly in use, Johnson said. “The difference in the library is phenomenal.”
Johnson is installing three Internet ports at her library on Smith Island, a Chesapeake Bay island of about 2,000 people and a place where the library is still “a true meeting place.” Maryland public libraries, according to Johnson, offer free remote Internet service to anyone in the state with a computer, a modem and a phone line. Johnson said all they have to do is register with their local library to begin using the service.
Libraries have always been the last free university, where everyone is equal once they set foot in the door, Johnson said. “Whether they want to build a stone wall, or learn Greek, we’re the people they come to,” she said. And by coming to Annapolis, Johnson feels she’s staying “in the game”, doing her part to smash the digital divide.