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Free Public Library? Not Everywhere

A former Los Altos resident runs some errands downtown—and then discovers her old library has walled off its WiFi. Good for more Starbucks business, but a little disconcerting.

Editor's Note: The following column, "Ratt's Rambles," appears in Mountain View Patch. The North County Library Authority, which collects extra library parcel taxes from Los Altos and Los Altos Hills residents, will meet Friday at 5:30 p.m. in the (181 Hillview Ave, Los Altos) to discuss a proposed exploratory study of finances from the county library district, in part, over the $80 fee.

Recently I found myself in Los Altos doing errands—shoes to the cobbler, a quick repair at the tailor and a nail appointment. I lived in Los Altos before moving to Mountain View and have gone to these merchants for years. I’ve discovered new stores for other things in and around Castro Street (restaurants, bank branch, coffee place), but I continue to frequent the businesses in my former town because the truth is, it was easier to stay with them than hunt for new places.

I had time to kill before the tailor would have my sweater repair completed. Rather than drive home and then back again, I decided to stop at the library and do some writing. It seemed like a good idea—less driving, less gasoline, less wasted time, close, quiet and I could log on to the Internet. Why not?

Here’s why not.

At the Los Altos Library, wireless connections require an active library card. Residents are entitled to a card free. Non-residents (that would be me) have to . Yup, $80.

Yes, I knew about the card fee, it was in the local papers and even on Patch, however, I wasn’t aware an active library card was required to access their online resources inside the library. No Internet for me.

I grew up in a small town with a tiny public library. Just visiting was a special treat. My family couldn’t afford to keep four kids with voracious appetites for reading in books; the library solved the problem. I still remember the day I was finally old enough to get my very own library card. The card was free.

My kids grew up frequenting the library. We had one rule. They could take out as many books as they could carry by themselves. They stacked books to their chins and carefully walked to the checkout counter. Eager to read they often started in the car on the way home. Books were their windows to the world; I was happy to make as many library trips as they wanted. Their cards were free.

Today, my grandchildren not only have the library and all its resources, they also have the Internet at their fingertips. They, too, love trips to the library, and stacks of books are a common sight at their house. Again, their cards are free.

I’m not surprised about the fee; I’m disappointed. One more thing with a monetary proviso attached. As the saying goes, There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Local taxes and supplemental resources fund libraries. But a fee for a library card?

Students from pre-school through 12th grade within the boundaries of the Santa Clara Library District are exempt, however, teachers in the same district must pay. Really?

The fee is another marker of economic disparity. For some, the $80 dollars may be minimal. Twenty-nine tall lattes at Starbucks, 10 Fandango movie tickets, five small Margherita pizzas. One new Kindle. For others, the fee may be a hardship, especially in the current economic climate.

Sure, I could sit in that library and read off the shelves or use my computer without Internet access. But who can finish a book in one short visit? Who can write without accessing the Internet?

So, thank you, Mountain View, for supporting and maintaining the priceless gift of learning and reading, and for continuing to make the world of books accessible to everyone without an additional fee.

As for my time in the Los Altos library, it was brief. I went to Starbucks instead and logged on to its free Internet. And I ordered an iced, non-fat, half-caf latte with a half pump of mocha for consolation.

Now if I can find a cobbler and a tailor for alterations closer to home...

Troy Johnson November 11, 2011 at 03:13 PM
>>Who can write without accessing the Internet? Isaac Asimov, Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, basically every writer before you were born.
Val Carpenter November 11, 2011 at 04:02 PM
Actually the North County Library Authority JPA Board meeting begins at 5:30 pm not 5 pm in the Neutra House on Hillview Avenue in Los Altos.
Nancy Tucker November 11, 2011 at 07:29 PM
At the last Los Altos Library Commission meeting, we heard that there will be free WiFi for everyone when the Santa Clara County finishes upgrading its equipment.
L.A. Chung November 11, 2011 at 09:40 PM
Thanks for the correction, Val. I will update both articles (Also see Friday's story, just posted)

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