why exactly the digital divide matters

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.

5 thoughts on “why exactly the digital divide matters

  1. When you say “unequal access to the Internet,” you do not disclose how it is unequal. And I’ll assume it’s the key to the so-called digital divide, so it must be important. Hazarding a guess, I’ll assume convicted sex offenders ordered to stay out of public libraries cannot access public library computers, but so far as I know, everyone else can. So would you please tell us how you define unequal access and perhaps provide a few examples? Thank you.

    Public computers are available in other locations, by the way, like Kinkos, so please explain why people cannot access e-government and the like from those locations.

    Also, you say, “this amounts to an unfunded mandate.” What does? E-government? Please elaborate. Thanks again.

  2. Dan, my point was to discuss ALA’s statement regarding e-government by including an anecdote about my own work, not starting a discussion about unequal access or sex offenders in the library.

    Having places where computers are only available for a fee means that people who cannot afford them cannot access things that are only available via the internet. People who do not have their own computers, who do not have a stable residences where they could attain their own personal internet access, or who lack the skillset required to use a computer without assistance are all affected by the digital divide. If the government starts putting services online that require people to have internet access and computer skills to access them, then one would hope they would have some sort of plan for giving access and/or training to people lacking these resources. Currently they say “go to your public library” but there is no mechanism in place assuring that any public library in the US will have computers + access + training/classes for people. Most of them do, but this is almost a happy accident and not a concerted plan.

    The digital divide is not a library-only issue, but as libraries are more and more becoming the go-to place where people without their own computers or internet access are referred to, it’s important that it’s quite clear how they are becoming an integral part of what is required for e-government to work properly.

  3. This digital divide is a serious problem; accessing the internet and having the skills to use it are not only critical to a democracy, but now it is a matter of survival. Many companies require an online application for all positions. People now need to get online to work out medical benefits, veteran’s benefits, insurance, etc. They need to figure out Microsoft Word and type up their resume, too. I worked in a poor area where many people did not have a computer, or their computer was not working and they didn’t have the money to fix it. Yes, they were lucky to have a local library branch with six public computers, but they only got an hour on the computer a day, with no staff available to help them. For a person who struggles to fill out an long online form, or type a resume, that is often not enough time. The libraries need support for more computers, more staff to help, and more computer classes.

  4. Nice post. Important topic. Keep’em coming.

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