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]

35 thoughts on “why the digital divide is a library issue

  1. The debates were on CNN. I don’t think they aired live on YouTube.

  2. As I work my way through Infopeople’s “23 Web 2.0 Things Challenge” I am struck by yet another reason the divide is “still” with us – it is widening. The whole 2.0 phenomenon is rapidly creating a divide (or divides) of its own, and one that people without easy Internet access are going to be even less able to cross. For the technorati and the geeki it is easy to forget that a great majority of people are only now connecting with these tools and that many others are still working their way through 1.0. To focus so much attention on these new tools is to lose perspective and connection with our very wide and technologically diverse patron base.

  3. Pardon my vent here, but I feel the need to respond to your observations about technostress. I sense some frustration on your part with library staff who are not the technocheerleaders we should be. While I agree that an upbeat “we can do this” approach works better then a “computers are hard” approach, what I think is also going on is frustration on the part of frontline staff who are completely ignored in large bureaucracies when it comes to making decisions about what type of technology is implemented. For example, we got a new phone system that is like a giant step backward in phone technology. It may be helpful in large corporations where people work all day at one cubicle, chained to a desk, but it does NOT work in a library branch where staff is constantly on the move, helping out the public or just seeking an empty computer (because we don’t have enough to go around). Transferring calls is a byzantine endeavor. The system goes down frequently, and the end result is that staff look like idiots in front of customers when we drop calls, and appear to be Luddites when we report the problems to the higher ups. Oh and did I mention that the voice quality is horrible and I have to ask people to constantly repeat themselves over the phome because I cannot understand what they are saying? These types of situations are repeated over and over again, with our online catalog, our internet queuing software, etc. Lots of bugs and quirks and malfunctions. I get TIRED of being cheerful about technology that just does not cut it, but feel like if I say anything then I am one of those dinosaurs who is part of the problem. We need to address the digital divide between the decision makers and the frontline staff in our organizations.

  4. Actually Chris that’s a good point — I think technostress works both ways. For a chapter I wrote on it, I talked about how usually it’s pressure to do better with technology than people feel trained or prepared for that leads to a lot of the (in my experience) “computers are hard” mentality. I think a lot of workplace technostress is actually a sign of poor management than poor technology.

    While I don’t think it’s anyone’s responsibility to be cheerful about it, I think there’s a difference between saying “our power sometimes surges here, you might not want to plug your laptop in it without a surge protector” (state problem, state approach, offer solution) and “don’t plug in your laptop, it might blow up” (hyperbole, no clear solution, dead end).

    My specific example was highlighting the librarian/patron problems but it’s clear that there are librarian/management issues that are similar (librarian in the middle with people who don’t know as much as her on either end) and that also need to be addressed.

  5. The other thing I thought about this morning is that it damages our credibility to be sanguine about technology that does a lousy job. But I will try very hard from now on to take your observations to heart and resist hyperbole and overstating the problem. And it’s so important to provide some kind of solution for the customer. Thanks for the reminder.

  6. Broadband internet is not a neccessity of life like food, shelter, and water, it is a luxury. I see people driving around in big, roomy SUV’s and think how nice it would be to be able to own one as well, but I don’t expect that one will be GIVEN to me any time soon. Everybody must live within a budget and it may not include broadband or any other kind of internet. I am middle class and I just got connected to broadband a few months ago, before then, I couldn’t afford it.
    Not ALL companies, government offices, and universities are completely computerized. Paper forms and phone calls work just fine. Remember the olden days?

    Who’s to say if everyone was “connected” that they would be tuned into the debates anyway. Some people get enough of it on TV. :)

    Libraries have large computer labs available to everyone. Yes, they are always full but eventually after an hour’s wait the next patron gets an opportunity to use the computer. While patrons are waiting for their turn on the computer they could, now hold on, browse the BOOKS, maybe even check one out!!! I know this is another subject completely but there are many services at the library that could be used while waiting for a computer.
    Just my opinion.

  7. Broadband becomes more of a necessity when it is the only way to get your tax forms, apply for your government jobs, apply for government aid, apply for your job benefits, set up your banking for your new job that starts in a few days… Many of the government offices in this area no longer help people with these things. They give people the URL they need and direct them to the library. If they have to stand around and wait for a computer to fill out those forms, it IS an issue.

    I’m not sure where you live, but be very grateful that they’re still using paper forms and phone calls, because they sure aren’t here. The post offices even quit carrying tax forms because it was “too big of a hassle,” so we are now the only place people can get them if they do not get the correct forms mailed to them or have a computer, Internet connection, and printer at home.

    A great many companies will only accept resumes through online forms. We’ve had jobseekers in tears in the Computer Center because they’ve been trying to hand out paper resumes and the companies refuse to take them. It’s not unusual for one of the Computer Center staff to grab a Kleenex box, sit down with someone, calm them down, and talk them through an application on a Web site and act as a general cheerleader as they fumble with the computer. I spent an hour last Saturday helping a new security guard set up his medical, vision, and dental benefits, W-4 information, local tax information, and direct deposit information on his new company’s extremely buggy portal site because they expect new hires to have that all done before they ever show up for work. Apparently HR in certain companies can’t be bothered to explain anything any more.

    So I think it’s a little naive to act like having a computer is sheer extravagance for people. Having an SUV is an extravagance when you could have a smaller car–you still have transportation. Having no access to basic government functions, job applications, and HR forms required for your job is different. That access is what enables people to get and keep that food, shelter, and water, and is such it counts as a necessity.

  8. Broadband access becomes more of an issue as websites seem (IMHO)to be including more graphics whizzing across the page (and other bandwidth-eating unnecessary crap) Try going to say, an automaker’s website to price a car’s options. You’d better have high speed and the latest version of a browser that can handle the graphics (let’s not even talk about all of the different plug-ins you might need!)

  9. You just wrapped up my problem in a neat little bow. Excellent job! I don’t know how many businesses place their job applications online for jobs that don’t require a computer.

  10. Some great points made here. Where we live going online at the library is fine-as long as you have plenty of time! After school (when the kids need access to do their homework) you could wait a couple hours to get to sit down at a computer. Then you are limited to how much time you get to use it. We regularly have some of our kid’s friends over who can’t afford broadband so that they can get a fair chance. What we need is a National policy to get broadband access to all Americans. True high speed access that would enable students to join interactive study groups and the like.

    The CWA (Communications Workers Of America) has started a project called Speed Matters that addresses our broadband access problems. They are also “interested identifying educators who would be interested in talking about their vision of what they could do if every child had home access to a computer with a real high speed connection”.

    Check out their website at http://www.speedmatters.org

  11. As Roger said, some great points have been made in previous comments. One aspect of digital divide which I’ve not yet seen mentioned is remoteness. I live in a state which is sharply divided between urban and rural. Libraries in the remote parts of the state have banded together to provide good services, but basic connectivity is still an issue. If the closest big town or city is hundreds of miles away, chances are that broadband providers aren’t very interested in providing connection. It’s not cost-effective for them, nor does it bring them many new customers. I agree with Jessamyn that it’s cool what libraries are doing. But having greater social support will go a long way in closing the gap.

  12. You say, “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.”

    I do not understand. Filtered access is constitutionally approved in US v. ALA and that’s “not very democratic”? Anyone not a minor can ask for the filters to be temporarily disabled without even having to provide a reason and that’s “not very democratic’?

    Exactly what does this say about “people on the other side of the digital divide,” that the law should not apply to them? That they are too ignorant to understand the librarians advising them that filters may be disabled upon request?

    I do not understand. Please elaborate.

  13. Very few libraries I’ve been in have signs that their Internet access is filtered and the filters may be turned off by request without a reason given. I know that my library’s policy is available on our Web site and as a hand out, but not as a sign, and the library board insisted that anyone requesting that the filters be turned off show ID and that we log it. I also know that we’re one of the better libraries. Some in the area have staff who don’t know how to turn the filters off or who simply refuse to without a given reason. While the Supreme Court may have thought it was a fair law, the implementation is anything but.

    So the problem is not the people on the other side of the digital divide. Yes, they are ignorant of their rights, but that’s because the librarians often are NOT advising them that filters may be disabled upon request, and even when they are, the implementation may require that their use of library resources is logged in ways that no other library resource use is. So, if you have a home computer, good for you! Surf whatever you want! If you don’t, Big Brother is watching you.

    And let’s not even get into the number of people who hit mistakenly filtered sites and are embarrassed and don’t ask for help because filters do not work and simply provide expensive ineffective answers to moral problems (and a false sense of security, I’d like to add)…

  14. SafeLibraries, we’ve discussed this at length on the wikipedia site and I do not want to discuss it at length here. The Supreme Court making a decision about funding conditions for libaries is not at all the same as mandating filtering in public libraries. Saying something in “constitutionally approved” is very different from saying that it’s mandated and itself is not an accurate way of describing the results of CIPA. There is NO LAW that mandates filtering, there is only a Supreme Court decision that if the government that wants to tie funding to filtering, it’s not breaking the law. It’s a huge difference.

    The point I was making is that richer libraries can afford — if they disagree with the stipulation that they must filter — to forego funding. Poorer libraries can’t, and have to put up with bad filtering, often poorly implemented as Meg mentions above. Most libraries that I have been in that filter have no visible notification that adults can have the filters disabled. Many libraries don’t even have the power to disable the filters at the time a rquest is made.

    The Supreme Court case was decided prima facia, basically saying that as the law was written, it’s not unconstitutional. There is still room, according to (I think) Justice Stevens for an “as applied” challenge — meaning that the law as applied restricts constitutionally protected speech. No one has seen fit to challenge the law yet, but data gathered by the ACLU and others seems to point towards the law being applied in ways that violate people’s free speech rights. It’s for a court of law to determine, all I can do is point to what the courts have already said and how that affects poor people.

  15. Are you aware that nathangphd lost his job because you linked to his post? Way to go.

  16. I wasn’t aware of that. His post was on a public website, visible to anyone. While I’m truly sorry if he lost his job, I’d have to say if he lost it it’s because he made that post in the first place on a public website. Anyone could have linked to it, I’m just someone who happened to.

  17. I think maybe one of the things that comes out of the whole nathangphd situation is that burnout and stress among librarians is an overlooked problem. That much of the public doesn’t understand what we do is annoying and somewhat problematic, but that very few administrations or HR departments seem to understand how stressful our jobs can be and what that stress does to us, is a different and more pressing problem.

    When all librarians hear from administration is “remember customer service” and “the customer is always right”, it makes us feel like bad librarians (or bad people) when we have a frustrating day, or when the cumulative effects of frustration begin to burn us out. I know that (in a past job), displaying any attitude that was not relentlessly cheery and upbeat about all patrons, no matter what the situation (up to and including assault) was construed as “having a bad attitude”. Even asking about how to cope with stress was seen as “not being a team player”, and met with reprisals. The sad fact is that some librarians have few other outlets than the library_mofo community on Livejournal (and other, similar entities). No wonder nathangphd sounded angry and frustrated in his post! (though I’ll bet — without knowing him — that his public presentation took a different tone than did his post)

    When you think about it, librarians get little recognition from the public as being professionals, often deal with continually slashed budgets, are vastly underpaid for the amount of education (and student loan debt) that we have, and work in a service profession with plenty of public contact — it is no surprise that we get stressed and burnt out at our jobs. Even the best of library administrations generally offer little in the way of support, and the worst often compound the problem. I think a constructive exploration of ways for librarians and administrations to combat this problem has been needed for quite some time. I’d write it, but I’m honestly as baffled as everyone else.

  18. I think a constructive exploration of ways for librarians and administrations to combat this problem has been needed for quite some time. I’d write it, but I’m honestly as baffled as everyone else.

    I think that’s a really good point.

    A lot of what we call technostress, I think of as really a management problem where people’s expctations of what can be done with technology from a management perspective and what can actually be done with technology realistically by staff are two very different things. When I worked in public libraries I was always beign told to do things with the public computers and the patrons that were totally unrealistic, both in their ideas of how patrons would respond and their ideas of how the technology even worked. When you try to explain that their ideas are unrealistic, you’re branded as “not a team player” which is horrible to hear for someone who works really hard, all the time, with very very imperfect systems.

    Every time I see a TV commercial for some new technological marvel, whether it’s a cell phone or an operating system or some feature of something we already have, I sort of wince knowing that there’s a huge gap between the idealized version of the technology presented and how it’s going to work in real life. Just the difference between how our library PCs work and how a patron’s PC works at home is enough to point that out. Every difference needs to be explained to savvy users and is taught to novice users as “this is how a computer works”

    It’s terrible and there is no understanding that this is the bulk of what a lot of librarians do with very little training or guidance and even less empathy to how difficult that job is. I made a decision at my job that I would not get yelled at for my job and when someone started yelling, I made them talk to my boss. Not a team player, I guess.

  19. When you hear account like this, it does cause concern. So, I thought it might be interesting to look at other posts the guy made, knowing that there is always more to the story. I browsed the library mofo archives to see what he wrote. Upon reading through a ton of posts, it is clear the guy hated everyone! Glad I don’t have to work with him.

    I mean, we all have bad days, encounter difficult interactions with people (customers and coworkers, alike.) We are all entitled to complain. But, when the rants are personal attacks on people based on their weight, how they look or sound, etc., it is not defensible. He slams administrators, coworkers, volunteers, his city, and customers equally. In a few posts, he even goes to the extent of threatening physical violence (kicking people and running others over with his car.) Sounds like he is in dire need of some counseling.

    And, shame on him, he did nothing to make his posts private! He used his name, mentioned his city, and basically names people he is slamming. He didn’t lock the posts or make them friends only. Once you make it known to your employer and coworkers how much you hate them, it is time to go. Why would any organization want him around knowing that he hates what he does, who he serves, and the people he works with.

    This is definitely a cautionary tale. Be careful about what you do on the internet. It is public. Be mature.

  20. Nathangphd is a wonderful person. Until you have walked a mile in his shoes, you really shouldn’t judge.

  21. I’ve had library filters that simply display a 404 instead of telling you that you’ve been filtered. (I know, because I can see the first half of the text file load up, and then it blinks to a 404, which is impossible.)

  22. The present comment is being posted from a public library. As I write it (March 1, 2008), the most recent post is dated December 12, 2007. Looks like another 3 weeks and comments would have been closed… One disadvantage to being on the far side of the digital divide is that participation in online discussions is anything but timely.

    LibraryLady: Broadband may be a luxury, but SUV’s are an extreme extravagance by comparison. Too many things have been re-clssified as necessities, from indoor plumbing to refrigerators to (obscenely, thanks to lack of mass transit) cars.

    Mark: Thankx for pointing out the effect of value subtraction by signal-to-noise ratio dilution. I got more -done- in 1991 at 2400 bps.

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