Smithers librarians face hard choices now that the federal government has axed its public computing program.
Until it was cancelled last month, the Smithers library received about $3,300 a year through the federal Community Access Program.
The money was earmarked for free internet access as well as upgrades and repairs to the library’s six public computers.
“It’s a pretty essential service,” library director Tracey Therrien said, noting the library likely has to cut its budget in other areas to keep the service going.
Users logged on to the library’s public computers nearly 9,000 times in 2011, Therrien said, a 43 per cent increase since 2005, the first year the Smithers library received CAP funding.
Those numbers don’t include residents who access the library WiFi from their own laptops or other devices, she added.
Therrien said the increase in the use of library computers shows Industry Canada was wrong to conclude in March that CAP had achieved its objectives.
Along with locals who use the library computers for schoolwork, social activity, job searches and genealogical research, Therrien said tourists often use them to catch up on email or find out about local events and places to stay.
So far, Industry Canada has not cancelled the other part of CAP, funding for a student intern who can teach people how to do everyday computer tasks and use electronic resources like e-readers and audio books.
Last year’s intern gave more than 80 one-on-one sessions, Therrien said, most of them for seniors.
“Our youth intern was 18 years-old and had a smart phone in one hand and a laptop in the other,” she said. “She was excellent help.”
Treena Decker, who works at Community Futures in Prince Rupert, was responsible for distributing the roughly $100,000 in annual CAP funding to 27 sites in northwest B.C.
Seven of those sites are in public libraries, Decker said, while the rest are in community centres or band council buildings.
“When you break it down to roughly $3,400 per site, that’s a lot of bang for the government buck.”
Along with standard hardware and software, Decker said a lot of the CAP funding went to internet connectivity, “It’s a huge cost up here in the north,” she said.
In the tiny coastal community of Una River, for example, CAP funded a public WiFi network. Other sites used the funding to put up secondary radio towers to boost their internet speeds.
Decker said the federal government has until June to reconsider axing the program, noting CAP has been on the chopping block before.
According to Statistics Canada, 84 per cent of B.C. households had internet access in 2010, a rate that is higher in major cities.
Among the roughly 20 per cent of Canadian households who have no internet access at home, more than half said they had no need or interest in it.
However, the same survey showed only half of Canadian households making $30,000 or less a year have internet access and an internal Industry Canada audit from the same year noted the digital divide continues to persist in Canada.
Rural and remote communities, as well as seniors, were two of several demographic groups most likely to not have access to the internet.