Every morning, a half-hour before the Metro Reference Library opens, the scene inside the dimly lit lobby always looks the same. Dozens of people lined up, waiting for the sleepy-eyed security guard to allow them through the turnstiles.
When he does, the mad dash for the free-access Internet computers begins. Scores of Net users fan out to secure a machine in their favourite corner (you can't reserve these recently added black-screened terminals, unlike the older models on the floor), and many stay glued to their screens for hours on end. Throughout the day, the line of waiting users never lets up.
These folks are part of the estimated 30 per cent of Canadians who don't have Net access at home and depend on Internet cafés (at $2.50 to $3 per hour) or the frustrating but free Community Access Program (CAP), a service initiated by the feds under a larger program, Connect Canada, with a mandate to hook up the masses to the info highway.
For the last 10 years, CAP has supplied thousands of free computers, mostly used ones, to libraries, schools and community groups courtesy of the private sector. The problem is that the technology is so shoddy that breakdowns are daily occurances.
Machines freeze, servers go down without warning, and the system remains crippled for long stretches. You hear a lot of grumbling and curses from users, and way too many computers with "out of order" signs that remain slapped on them for weeks.
It's a mixed blessing at best. In the rush to install the hardware - there are now 1,300 machines in the library system - no level of government has provided the financial resources to actually run the system properly. As a result, the library has no specialized staff assigned to deal with the problems, and no one seems to be able to keep the terminals operating.
"Something needs to be done about the frequent problems," says Andrew McIntosh, a Toronto researcher I see regularly. "I could be in the middle of composing an e-mail or viewing a page and the computer just goes haywire or the server goes down. Sometimes you feel like just going to an Internet café and paying the fee."
It's no picnic for the staffers either. They're kept on their feet all day long, going from terminal to terminal trying to keep up with the complaints.
"Money is at the root of this mess. We don't have enough to smooth it out," a staff member who came over to look at my computer one day said in exasperation.
According to Tania Ensor, a spokesperson for the Reference Library, since Internet service was first offered four years ago, funding for the system as a whole has fallen from $151 million in 2000 to $131 million in 2002. Things are so rough, she says, that libraries have to funnel a portion of their operating budget from the city to maintaining the computer services.
"The city tends to think we're not that high a priority," says Ensor. "We've become a victim of our own success."
She says she hopes the problems will ease this spring when the library system switches from the dated version of Netscape it now uses to a more current version of Internet Explorer. But, she warns, "replacing the browser is not as straightforward as it might sound. The Netscape browser doesn't just stand on its own; it's tightly integrated into our entire menu of security and electronic product delivery systems, which complicates the process."
Ironically, librarians in other countries consider Toronto's libraries some of the busiest and best-equipped in the world. The system as a whole boasts 18 million users a year, more people than visit the Air Canada Centre, the CN Tower, the AGO and the ROM combined. And branches are bustling with new users because of the arrival of immigrants in the 1990s. It's now a common sight to see newcomer schoolchildren scrambling for terminals in local libraries.
Says Liss Jeffrey, a director of the McLuhan Global Research Network at the University of Toronto and an expert on Internet accessibility, "Connect Canada has been widely successful, but it has not sufficiently addressed sustainability. There are gaps showing up, and the Reference Library is only one example."