Public libraries that provided a quiet refuge from civil unrest in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore are about to receive a small bounty from Silicon Valley.
Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen and his wife, philanthropist and educator Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, have teamed up with Hewlett-Packard to donate nearly $170,000 worth of computers, printers and other equipment.
The couple says they were moved by the “individual acts of heroism” of library staffers who kept the doors open to the public even as protests raged over police brutality and the deaths of young black men.
“Libraries became in essence the heart of Ferguson and Baltimore amidst a time of immense darkness for so many,” Arrillaga-Andreessen told USA TODAY in an exclusive interview. “So we felt this calling to help the libraries in a way that we felt we could uniquely do.”
The donation is part of a growing effort in some quarters of Silicon Valley to address the digital divide that persists throughout the rest of the country, especially in poor or underserved neighborhoods.
Cheap smartphones and tablets have put the Internet in more hands than ever before, but access remains out of reach for many, with 21% of American households reporting no Internet access at all, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. For some, Internet connectivity is too expensive and in some rural areas, it isn’t available at all.
Plugging the gap are public libraries, which despite the perception that technology has made them less relevant, if not obsolete, are the No. 1 way people without the Internet at home, school or work access it for free. These range from high school students cramming for a test to job seekers filling out online applications.
“It’s the bridge between the haves and the have nots in digital society,” said Scott Bonner, director of Ferguson Municipal Public Library.
Yet, libraries struggling with budget cuts have been forced to slash services and make do with aging, outdated equipment even as they reinvent themselves as digital hubs that help people survive in the 21st-century economy.
Andreessen, who sits on the board of Hewlett-Packard, came up with the idea to tap a program for executives and directors to donate technology to nonprofits and educational organizations. Arrillaga-Andreessen and Andreessen are spending $50,000 to receive $166,258 of equipment that they are donating to the Ferguson and Baltimore libraries.
Arrillaga-Andreessen says she and her husband each have deep personal connections to public libraries.
“Libraries were a safe haven and provided access to another world as we were growing up,” she said.
Andreessen was raised in New Lisbon, Wis., and the local library was the future billionaire Netscape founder’s only window onto what lay beyond his small town.
Diagnosed with dyslexia in the fourth grade, Arrillaga-Andreessen says her local library nurtured a lifelong relationship with reading and books.
Arrillaga-Andreessen says she and her husband lay awake at night riveted by live video feeds of protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. They made personal donations to the libraries and encouraged others to do the same on social media, but both wanted to do more.
“We were watching on Ustream individuals filming what was going on on the streets from their iPhones and we had literal direct first-person experiential insight into what was happening in these communities,” said Arrillaga-Andreessen, a lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the author of the bestseller Giving 2.0. “It makes this investment of technology to allow others the same access a no-brainer. … It is these communities that need access to technology almost more than any other.”
After the grand jury decision in November not to charge Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown, the working class suburb of St. Louis erupted in protests.
As businesses boarded up windows and schools shut down, the Ferguson Library just a couple blocks away from the Ferguson Police Department remained open, providing shelter and even a makeshift school for as many as 200 students.
As word spread on the Internet, the library received a flood of cash donations and hundreds of boxes of books, raising $453,000, a sum that exceeds its annual budget.
Bonner says the Ferguson Municipal Public Library will replace the threadbare carpeting and hired a full-time children’s librarian. Still, each day there’s a long waiting list for eight desktop computers, some with duct tape covering broken USB ports or cracked covers. The library also has a handful of old Chromebooks.
The State of Missouri has stepped in with a grant to replace computers for adults so Bonner will use the equipment donated by Andreessen and Arrillaga-Andreessen and Hewlett-Packard for computers loaded with educational offerings and games for kids. He also has plans for a laptop lab to teach programming and he will set aside some laptops for outreach in the community.
“It takes us from just crossing the digital divide for regular-patron use to being able to build programs around technology and deeper educational opportunities,” Bonner said.
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SOURCE: USA Today – Jessica Guyn