Backtalk: Walking the Library System

By Stuart Hamilton

I'm a librarian on a rather unique mission: I'm walking across the United States to find out what Americans think of the current world situation. After nearly five years immersing myself in topics such as the digital divide, Internet censorship, as well as 9/11, the war in Iraq, and legislation such as the USA PATRIOT Act, I found myself keen for a break from media reports and set out to hear real opinions and in the process to see firsthand how U.S. libraries compare to libraries in the UK, where I have worked, and those in Denmark, where I live.

The unfiltered

All in all, my traveling companion, Dave (a nonlibrarian), and I will cover more than 5000 miles, from Delaware to California, taking in 12 states and all manner of rural and urban areas. So far, I've seen the middle of cities, such as Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Denver, and the middle of nowhere. One thing all these places have in common: public libraries. From the smallest towns to the larger cities, I've observed public libraries playing a very important function for their communities.

What have I learned about U.S. libraries? For one thing, Internet access is ubiquitous. We have found only one tiny library without Internet access (Salem, WV). Generally, we find a number of PCs with fast access, almost always in use when we arrive. Our first library, in Milton, DE, asked for $15 for a nonresident card for a year before we could use the computers. After that, thankfully, we were never asked to pay a fee again.

While libraries in Denmark have much the same sort of facilities available, and the UK has been rolling out the People's Network of public access computing in libraries since 1997, my impression is that in the United States, users can confidently expect free Internet access in libraries, thanks to federal funds and organizations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Levels of use are encouragingly high.

…and filtered

Plenty of the places we've visited, however, have offered only filtered access to the Internet. Decisions on filtering appear to be community based. Small, rural libraries in southern Ohio, for example, filtered web-based email sites using a very narrow definition of information-seeking.

In chatting with the staff in some of the smaller libraries, most suggested their patrons suffered little from filtered access; some suggested few users even knew their Internet access was being filtered at all. In some libraries, a simple request from the user was sufficient to remove the filter, while others required users to explain exactly what they were trying to access and why.

When it comes to the Patriot Act, I confess I was hoping to see some of the signs I had read about in my research (“If you are reading this, it means that the FBI has not visited this library”). I found that when I discussed the law with library staff, however, not everyone knew about the act's existence, much less its implications. The extent to which education about the Patriot Act has reached into rural communities is open to question.

Miles apart

What has not been open to question is the enthusiasm we've been met with and the quality of the staff and the buildings we have visited. It has given me a real kick to go into each building and introduce myself as a European librarian as well as to be a regular user, meeting friendly staff happy to dig out maps of local trails or to direct us to the nearest motel—or even put us up for the night as happened in Fort Ashby, WV, and Kansas City, MO.

So far, no two facilities have been alike. I've surfed the net in an old converted railway station (Marion, KS) and in fantastic, brand new buildings (Columbia, MO, and Evansville, IN). New York Public Library was just as I imagined it. The solemn civic building in St. Louis was impressive, too. The $10 million library in Telluride, CO, meanwhile, shows what can happen when a wealthy community really gets behind its library.


It seems entirely appropriate that I am writing this piece in Grand County Public Library, Moab, UT, named LJ's Best Small Library in America 2007 (LJ 2/1/07, p. 32). Libraries have been essential to the success of our trip, providing everything from communication back home to access to breaking news, as well as helping us maintain our web site. Thanks to U.S. libraries, we have a regularly updated web site with over 2.5 million hits so far and over 3000 regular readers.

Ultimately, the trip has been an odyssey of libraries. Over nearly 5000 miles, we have visited more than 100 public libraries. Without them, we would have had a much harder time making this trip happen and, from both a personal and professional point of view, a far less interesting walk across the continent.

Author Information
Stuart Hamilton ( is a Librarian living and working in Copenhagen, Denmark. He hopes to finish his trek on November 2, 2007.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing