Tucked away behind the hospital at the North end of Garberville, you’ll find a county facility unlike any other. Disguised as the Garberville Branch of the Humboldt County Library, this expensive county facility actually functions as a private spa for just one county employee, John Christianson.
If you visit the building on one of the four days a week that it is open, you’ll see that on the inside, it looks, superficially, like a library, albeit the tiniest, most pathetic excuse for a public library you’ve ever seen. It has a few stacks of book, mostly for children, a rack of magazines and newspapers, and a small selection of old movies and albums. These things contribute to the appearance of a library, without actually providing much value to the community, with the exception of providing a dry, temperature controlled environment, and restroom facilities for people who otherwise lack access to such things.
The library also has two computer terminals that access the internet, that people may use, for up to 30 minutes, if they are willing to wait their turn, and one computer terminal that only accesses the the county library’s database, from which library patrons can request or renew books, Again, these modest amenities create the visual illusion of a library, without providing the services the community really needs.
If you spend any time at all there, however, you will hear about the service this community desperately needs. All day long, people come into this alleged library, carrying a laptop, tablet, or other device and ask: “Do you have wifi?” or more assumptively, “Do I need a password to use the wifi?”
to which, our alleged librarian responds, “No, I’m afraid we don’t have wifi here.” He then recommends they try one of the two cafes in town which do offer wifi, for customers only, along with loud background music, blaring TV sets, limited table space, and an overpriced selection of food and beverages they may, or may not wish to purchase.
These days free public internet access is the single most important service that modern libraries offer. While you may, or may not be able to find the information you need in a book in the county’s collection, you will probably have to wait at least a week or two to have that book delivered to Garberville from the main library in Eureka, or from one of the larger branches up north.
On the other hand, you will almost certainly find what you need, almost instantly, online, and with wifi, you can easily download the information to your own device. The internet has become the single most important information service in the world, for communication, research, and participation in civic life. For public libraries to remain relevant in the 21st century they must provide a way for patrons to access the internet with their own devices.
In our small rural community, we desperately need free public wifi. At least 700 customers in Southern Humboldt still depend on a dial-up connection for access to the internet. Even more of us live off-the-grid, without a telephone or electricity. We will never have internet access at home, but the State expects us to pay our state sales tax on line. We cannot access many public documents or participate in public processes without access to the internet. As citizens, we can hardly participate in public debate or even communicate with each other anymore, without access to the internet. Yet, as far as I know, there is no free public wifi, anywhere, within a 40 mile radius of Garberville. Talk about “The Digital Divide.” We live it here in SoHum.
About 80% of the people who visit the building marked “Garberville Branch of the Humboldt County Library” ask about wifi in one form or another, and after John Christianson sends them away, confused and disappointed, they rarely return. I’ve asked this question more persistently than most, and through my inquiries, I have discovered that the Garberville Branch of the Humboldt County Library is not a library at all, but instead, serves an entirely different purpose altogether.
I began to realize that this “bait and switch” had occurred when John Christianson told me emphatically that he did not want wifi at the library at all. Until then, I had assumed that our lack of access was due to budget constraints, or some other complication. I could not imagine why a librarian would oppose wifi at the public library. Then, one day, John asked me, to repair a sophisticated computerized device, the likes of which I had never seen before. I was able to get the machine to work again, but it provided the clue that allowed me to unravel his devious plot.
Most people assume that public libraries exist primarily to provide people with the information they need to understand their world, and participate in society. That’s why, as taxpayers, we fund them. We expect libraries to provide internet access, and most people assume that free wifi is part of the package.
If you asked our local Board of Supervisors for a quarter-of-a-million dollars a year in taxpayer money for an air conditioned room and staff to house and guard a collection of Dr. Seuss books, they might look at you funny, but if you call it a public library, that conjures another image entirely, and apparently that’s enough to keep the money flowing in, allowing our alleged librarian, John Christianson, free reign to use the building for his own purposes.
John Christianson believes strongly in the powers of biofeedback. Do you remember biofeedback? That’s the idea that you can learn to consciously control things like your heart rate and blood pressure by using technology designed to provide you with feedback about these biological functions that would not otherwise impose themselves on you conscious mind. The imaginary library in Garberville provides John with a quiet space, relatively free from interruptions, where he can use his biofeedback machines to focus his energy on the mastery of his own bodily functions. The device John asked me to repair, was one of his biofeedback machines.
If you visit our alleged library, you will notice that John often has wires clipped to his earlobes, or perhaps an unusual elastic strap around his midsection, depending on which biofeedback machine he is hooked-up to at the time. You may also notice small, not very decorative, mobiles dangling from the ceiling, or small symbols mounted above the windows. These tiny devices provide visual biofeedback that help John retrain his eyes to improve his eyesight.
In the Garberville Branch of the Humboldt County Library, John has created an ideal environment for him to practice his biofeedback techniques. By keeping the library relatively uncluttered with books, John has room to stretch his eyes, and by not providing needed services, John has more time to focus on himself, and his biological functioning.
I can understand why John appreciates the quietude and the tranquility, not to mention the salary and creature comforts that this taxpayer subsidized facility provides him, but I’m sure he gets tired of answering the constant stream of people who inquire about wifi. Perhaps he could just put a sign on the door that said “No Public Wifi. Don’t Even Ask,” but it would probably be easier to to remove the sign that says “Public Library” and replace it with a sign reading “John Christianson’s Biofeedback Spa.”
Of course, instead of replacing the sign, we could replace John Christianson with someone more interested in providing us with the information services this community needs to compete in the global economy and participate in civic life, than in learning to control his blood pressure with his mind.
Postscript. This morning, 2nd District Humboldt County Supervisor Estelle Fennell told me that she was working with John Christianson to get wifi at the Garberville Branch of the Humboldt County Library. I’ll believe it when I see it.