Five ways libraries need to improve their internet offerings

I recently moved house and, while this entailed dealing with a whole litany of woes, the most damaging to my emotional and mental health was the loss of internet. Of course, you’re supposed to be able to move properties and have your web juice redirected without a hitch these days, but it doesn’t really work like that, does it?

The result was spending the best part of a month using either cafes’ wifi or going to local libraries. In doing the latter I created a list of things that Someone Needs To Do To Make Libraries Better Places To Do The Internet And Stuff. So, you know, send this to the person who makes things like that happen, will you?

1. Upgrade the browsers

Library one astounded me by using Internet Explorer 5 on its machines. This is a browser that was released in 1999, before pretty much any website you use on a regular basis these days even existed. Now, I’m not one to brag, but I’m a 10+ tab kinda guy. With Firefox and Chrome (and, I suppose, whatever the latest IE version is) this is no problem. But at the library it was like going back to the 20th Century, when you ended up with a zillion IE windows all over your desktop. And don’t even get me started on how bumming horrid it is to use.

2. Allow us to use your ports

I’m not saying I want to rock up at the library with my ergonomic mouse and killer speakers – I just mean that, if I have something to print, it may be stored on a USB stick or external hard drive which I‘d like to connect. But while library computers coquettishly display their inviting slots, they prudishly disapprove of you actually inserting your foreign object lest it carries some kind of icky virus. So you end up sweaty, frustrated and unsatisfied. Especially if you made a lot of effort to dress up all nice, like.

3. Allow us to open bloody PDFs, you berks

I had to print out a plane ticket and itinerary, and figured it would be no big deal to print these out at the library. However, my documents were presented in some new-fangled format known as “PDF”, and of course the machines didn’t have the necessary software (is it “Acrobat”, they call it? Weird!). Fortunately Google Docs allows you to open things like PDFs, in a less visually pleasing but passable manner. If it didn’t, I’m still not sure how I would have printed my stuff out.

4. Get the pensioners away from me

I’m not saying pensioners shouldn’t use the internet. I’m all for the silver surfers. But most of them have no idea what they’re doing and, if a (slightly) younger person happens to be sat nearby, they won’t think twice about appointing them their own personal “computer whiz” (accompanied by the internationally-recognised finger-waggling “computers” gesture). And, like the lady on the plane who can’t work out how to “make films come on”, if you help them once you’re done for. Your important LOLcats session is going to be one long interruptathon.

What’s the solution? As is so often the case with social problems, it’s age segregation. Simple.

5. Install brain-scanners to filter out the lunatics

Any free-to-enter place with… stuff is always going to attract a wide range of personality types, and it’s no different with libraries. My visits saw me encounter:

– A man using a computer and becoming more and more visibly and audibly upset, until he was just rocking back and forth, huffing at a decent volume
– A man quietly (but not quietly enough) chanting to himself as he surfed the web
– A lady with a high-pitched voice complaining to the staff that her machine hated her
– A man in camouflage with a full camping kit striding purposefully about the place pointing out what was wrong with the library
Actually, he and I had a bit in common.

I realise I’m beyond help when it comes to the points that are to do with Other People, but what about the rest? Am I being too harsh? Is it enough for boroughs to offer free internet facilities? Or should they make more of an effort to provide I.T experiences more in keeping with what the majority of regular internetters enjoy? Do you even care? Have you ever even *used* a library’s I.T facilities?

Stuart Waterman

Hello. I’m Stuart Waterman, a human.

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  1. Rich says

    One of my housemates is a library manager, so I get daily insights into the world of the library. Here are my responses

    1: Ha! Your council is obviously really terrible. Presumably they’re running the library and therefore in charge of upgrading the computer network. Our local libraries, while hardly running Chrome betas, are definitely running something not quite as lame as that. It’s probably limited by their IT policy, which is limited by their budget. Which ties us into points two and three

    2: Yes, if they let anyone stick any kind of device into their network, they would indeed be rotten with viruses in a trice.

    3. likewise, allowing any kind of file type to be used would only result in utter chaos. My housemate has a regular customer who constantly complains about not being able to download MIDI files. But then when you’re running a big public network being funded by public money you can’t expose it to risk by allowing people to just download whatever whenever. Chaos ensues!

    4. Ugh, human interaction, ick. How awful for you.

    5. Libraries have a long tradition of being holding pens for mentals. It is, after all, a publicly funded service. That said, even in jest, the idea of libraries having a door policy would disgust most library staff. I haven’t used library internet for years now but I have fond memories of the weirdos who haunted the computer desk… The library was also next door to the local YMCA so you’d get some proper herberts in there along with the gently wanking tramps. Happy days.

    That said, our county’s library service is, apparently, streets ahead of the rest of the country in terms of IT policy, and is being used as the model which other library services will follow when they begin upgrading… So change is coming, eventuallyish.

  2. says

    @ Rich

    Obviously I can only comment on my council – Haringey – and I suspect the level of services libraries offer varies wildly from borough to borough. I’d be interested to know which council runs the library you refer to so that next time I move I can look for a place there…

    I appreciate that using USBs and downloading files is a security minefield, I just wonder if there is likely to be a way of managing it more effectively in future. Using one computer, with no external devices and the inability to download anything, isn’t really a true representation of how most people expect to use I.T these days. I just think that restricting people to this kind of experience is likely to create a new (admittedly smaller) form of digital divide. But yes, it all comes down to money, which is probably being spent on useless things like collecting rubbish and improving schools.

    Obviously this was written with tongue somewhat in cheek. Serious about Other People though, they’re the worst.

  3. says

    This article is genius, really laughed. Most web designers only support IE+ these days (including me) so I’m shocked to learn that there are still PC’s out there using it!

  4. says

    This article is genius, really laughed. Most web designers only support IE6+ these days (including me) so I’m shocked to learn that there are still PC’s out there using IE5!

  5. Emma Cossey says


    Agree completely with all those points.

    Especially 5) The Other People. The creepy ones. Who leave unexplained stains on those (usually broken) swivel chairs.

    Also, my local library is in desperate need of some form of caffeine dispensing machine. Asking too much?


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