why the digital divide is a library issue

I skipped the debates that were covered on YouTube. I’m politically active generally, but I don’t get more or less active during election years. However, this event is as good a time as any to trot out the old Digital Divide topic and our perspectives towards it. In short, the digital divide is still with us and in some ways as people think it’s getting straightened out — more access to broadband for more people, more options for getting online at work or school or the library, more “affordable” broadband available — it becomes even more of a pervasive problem because people think it’s solved. Don’t have a computer or can’t afford one? Go use the one at the library! Can only get dial-up at home? Use the broadband at the library, they even have wireless! Don’t understand the internet? Need to type a letter? Need to learn to type? Go to the library, they do all that computer stuff now! This neglects a few very salient points.

1. While the library has computers and internet access, almost always, it rarely has enough computers. We learned this from the Public Libraries and the Internet report put out by the Information Use Management and Policy Institute at FSU that I have discussed previously.

2. The library very rarely has sufficient staff or volunteers to be available for novice computer users to help them with basic computer skills as a regular service that the library provides. Some libraries offer classes. Many will help you get a Yahoo account. Many have someone nearby the computers for basic questions. However very few have the sort of one on one tutoring available that is necessary for these novice users. It’s hard to teach adults to read in classes because many of them don’t read for a range of different reasons. Technology is no different. We have funding available for adult literacy in most places, where is the funding for adult technology literacy?

3. Technophobia and technostress. As with reading, many adults who cannot use computers have stress or anxiety about this. Many of them don’t learn to use one until they are forced to by having to apply for a job, interact with their government or because of a disaster. If we’re lucky, they learn because they have a new grandchild, a hobby that partially can be done online, or a remote friend that they would like to stay in touch with. Helping people learn technology is, in many ways about helping them get over technostress. I had a friend visiting recently who went to use her laptop at the local wifi-enabled public library (not my library, another library). She went to plug it in and the librarian warned her not to, saying that there was unstable power that could “blow up her computer.” She advised my friend, who was also a librarian, to charge the laptop at home before bringing it in to the library. My friend said she would, except that she was staying in a cabin without electricity and so this was impossible. Now, it doesn’t have to be a basic service of a library to offer electrical outlets to everyone who needs one. However, the sort of FUD involved in acting like plugging something into the wall is dangerous or to be avoided is the sort of “computers are hard” mentality we see passed on to patrons in libraries across the country every day. (update: or worse)

4. Many libraries that do offer broadband to the public have to offer a filtered version because the only way they can afford to pay for a broadband connection is by taking E-rate money that invokes CIPA regulations. That’s a shame. People on the other side of the digital divide have a much higher chance of their only internet access being filtered access, that’s not very democratic.

In short, we’re not ready to be people’s bridge across the digital divide, though I’m pleased as hell that we’re doing something, especially in the face of most everyone else doing nothing. Let’s look at broadband penetration rankings (full report). The US is 15th out of the 30 members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. So, every time you see more and more candidates on Twitter, Second Life, YouTube and whatever, keep in mind that while it may be cool that they’re reaching your demographic, they’re totally missing others. [thanks jen]

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