how is wifi like the railroads?

Ubiquitous wifi is only a social good for those with laptops. The coming of the railroads was the make or break point for small towns across America. If the train came through, you were home free. If it didn’t, well…. I drive all over the little towns of Vermont. I see cemetaries on the sides of mountains where, at one point, there were clearly enough people living there to sustain a community and probably a church. When we were all walking, we all had equal access to roads. Then some towns got the railroads, and with it the services, tourists, trade and attention that came with it. They thrived. Some towns faded away to a small cemetary at the end of a dirt road. Municipal wireless can help this problem, but only if we pay attention to who it’s serving, and who it isn’t.

As was the case with ownership of and access to railroads in the industrial era, control over and access to broadband connectivity is defining global, regional and individual success. In turn, it is shaping whether African Americans, Latinos and the poor will continue to live in economically strip-mined neighborhoods like Philadelphia’s Kensington.


On the Digital Divide

I have a talk I give that I call Postcards from the Other Edge of the Digital Divide where I discuss the choices that people and institutions make, and how those choices affect the information poor. I have a new set of talks I’m working on that I can sum up thusly “You can’t fix the digital divide with another damned website.” The Gates Foundation and the It’s All Good/OCLC folks have both had something to say about this topic somewhat recently and I really wonder how their professional interests affect their outlooks.

I personally have a dog in this fight. I teach basic computer skills to people, using library and school computers. Most of these people don’t have computers at home. Their ages range from 8 to 80. However the library computer is configured, that’s what they think of as “a computer” until such a time as they go to another library, or get a computer of their own. Many of my students will likely never have their own computers in their lifetimes. We talk about things like how to get on eBay for my senior citizen students who are downsizing. We talk about how to use a mouse well enough so that people can apply for jobs at Home Depot or the supermarket, both of which have computer-only application procedures. I define terms like cookies and “hard drive” and “click” and “enter key.” It’s a rare class that goes by that someone in my class doesn’t tell me something that I show them is like magic to them. I train librarians as much as I train residents. Where do the librarians learn this stuff in a rural area where the library is open ten hours a week?

I got my job because of the digital divide. The digital divide may be an overused and overgeneral term, but the problem it points out is real, and specific, and fundable. The world is doing more of its work digitally, and online, especially in the US. People who don’t grok “online” or “digital” can interact with less and less of the world just by doing what they’ve always done. This is a literacy issue, but also a hardware issue, at least where I am. The Government Printing Office is printing less and less and putting more and more online. People who understand the internet get their printers for $30 when they’re on sale [with free shipping!] and shop around for ink cartridges, people who don’t know this go to Staples on their lunch hour and choose from what’s available and get jacked for ink refills. Then they get home and find out there’s no cable in the box and they have to drive 35 miles back to get one.

The digital divide is real like poverty is real, and it’s self-reinforcing like poverty can be self-reinforcing. Part of the problem is access to the technology itself, but a larger part is access to solid information about technology, technologically knowledgeable people, and a community culture that views technology as a possible solution to some of its other challenges, not just another challenge in and of itself. How do you help communities get to that point? How do you help a librarian like my town librarian see why she might want to have a computer in the library — not a second or third computer, any computer at all?

Jenny uses her librarian superpowers for good

I talked to Jenny a bit at ALA about Digital Rights Management and the ListenIllinois project. I was concerned, as she was, about the interoperability of the ebooks that the program provides, and the fact that their books won’t play on iPods, among other platforms and hardware device options. Luckily for ListenIllinois patrons, Jenny was in a prime position to do something about it. Her solution, though admittedly imperfect, is a glorious example of a librarian seeing a problem or an inequality of access, deciding that it needs to be fixed and setting policy to address that inequality: libraries that join the ListenIllinois contract now need to purchase at least one MP3 player to circulate audiobooks to patrons. I applaud her decision, her plan, and her dedication to explaining it and trying to err on the side of inclusivity and access instead of shrugging and saying “well, what can you do?”

It’s a proven fact that libraries help bridge the digital divide, and now we need to step up and help bridge what is a growing digital audiobook divide. It’s simply unethical to say you’re not going to circulate players because it would be too much of a hassle for your staff. This is the future format of audiobooks, and we need to make them available to everyone, especially because there are some titles that are available exclusively in this format. There are so many reasons to circulate your own players right now that it’s almost a crime not to. If you look at it from a PR standpoint, do you really want to be the one standing up in front of the microphone explaining why you couldn’t spend $70 on one measly player for those patrons that don’t have one of their own?

best practices, children and the Internet

Okay, so the Rhode Island ACLU isn’t going to take their evidence of overblocking in libraries to the Supreme Court and try an “as applied” challenge. Scott from Information Overlord discusses the ACLU findings and also talks about some conclusions of a two year study done in the UK about kids & the online world. Called UK Children Go Online the report has many recommendations for people who are involved with children and/or their Internet access. One of the more interesting stats from a library perspective is that a very small percentage of kids and teens surveyed even use the Internet access in libraries.

Most users accessed the internet from home (89%) but also at work (28%), school or college (13%), a friend’s house (10%), via mobile access (6%), at libraries (5%) and internet cafés (3%).

More often than not, if a child is accessing the Internet elsewhere, according to another part of this survey, it’s at another child’s house. Add to this the gap in understanding between parents and children [or any adults and children, librarians and children perhaps?] and you have a complicated situation where erratic enforcement does nothing to solve the real problems.

This research has consistently identified gaps in understanding between parents and children – in internet expertise, in awareness of risks encountered and in acknowledgement of domestic regulation implemented. These findings suggest a rather low level of understanding between parents and children, impeding an effective regulation of children’s internet use within the home. It would be impractical to hope for complete understanding between parents and children, of course, but it is important not only to seek ways of closing the gap where possible but also to recognise the existence of the gap insofar as it persists – in designing research, safety guidance and other policy initiatives.

One of the major conclusions of this study is that policy makers must “mind the gap” between younger and older users when they think about how to best serve younger users.