As someone who speaks often on the digital divide and related issues, I’ve developed a pretty standard answer to the question of why the digital divide matters. It goes like this “We are a democracy. People who vote need to have access to as much reputable information as possible so they can make these and other choices. The internet is becoming an important ‘place’ to find this information. Unequal access to the internet creates unequal access to government.” The real reasoning is much deeper with examples — FEMA forms online, job applications, required email addresses for access to certain products and services — but that’s it in a nutshell. So, I’ve been dismayed at the lack of hot and botheredness about this issue that I seem to see within our profession. And it was weird to try to adjust the talking points when discussing the digital divide in a country without a democracy.
However, once in a while I see librarianship’s higher-ups really going to bat for the underdog. Recently the ALA and others submitted statements to the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs hearing, “E-Government 2.0: Improving Innovation, Collaboration, and Access” lamenting the fact that as we move towards “E-Goverment” (ugh, it’s just government, don’t call it something else because you access it via a browser, do we call it telegovernment when you call someone?) libraries are often THE access point to government information and services and yet have neither a place at the table or a hand in the creation of the tools. This amounts to an unfunded mandate at a time when libraries are already grappling with budget cuts, CIPA and the shifting profession generally.
Public libraries serve over 97 percent of the total population. There are over 9,000 library systems and over 17,000 libraries including branches. Increasingly government agencies refer individuals specifically to their local public libraries for assistance and access to the Internet for citizen-government interactions. Yet public libraries are not considered members of the E-Government team. Libraries struggle with increasingly smaller budgets and expensive ever- changing technology in order to assist thousands of Americans on a daily basis because the public relies on them.