The Digital Divide

RuralIN

I grew up in an area that, at the time, was rural Indiana.  To clarify, that picture above?  That’s a preschool-aged me in the little red jacket.  Those buildings in the distance?  Barns and outbuildings also owned by my parents.  To say that neighbors were few and far wasn’t much of an exaggeration.  (Also to clarify, this was our second house and this is pre-renovation–it was DEFINITELY a fixer-upper of the practically requiring a re-build variety.)

Back in the 1980’s when this photo was taken, the Internet wasn’t exactly publicly available.  In-home internet service was a decade and a half from arriving in its dial-up incarnation; wifi a distant dream.  Pay phones were available in most cities, and a copy machine was just about the niftiest thing that anyone in our area had ever seen.  (We actually had one in our kitchen–oh, luxury of luxuries!)

In the early 1980’s, There were no OPACs for libraries–we were still wresting with the card catalog, a simple but very redundant physical tool.  ILL was possible but costly in terms of time and waiting.  The technologies available at the time were things that would make people laugh today–simple things like tape recorders and headsets for audio cassettes.  Color copies might have existed but weren’t expected, and library programming–at least in our area–was pretty simple and centered on book groups, homework help, and kids crafts.

Public libraries are important for many reasons, and providing access to current technologies is definitely not the least of their functions.  In terms of library settings, rural libraries have always struggled to keep pace with their urban and suburban counterparts in terms of providing access to and support for evolving technologies.  As the pace of technological advance continues to accelerate and technologies diversify rapidly, the gap between urban and rural libraries has widened.  This is important stuff–public libraries are the major means of access for many patrons, especially those from low socioeconomic status and members of minority ethnic groups.  When libraries struggle to provide technology access, the digital divide increases.

What is the Digital Divide?

Definitions of the digital divide have changed over time as technology has evolved.  Today, the digital divide is defined in terms of the gap between those to have access to computers and the Internet and those who do not have access (NTIA, 1999).

Why is the Concept of the Digital Divide Important to Libraries?

Nationally, in 2011, approximately 16% of the population reported being entirely unconnected to the Internet (File, 2013, p. 13).  A higher percentage of people in rural communities tend to be disconnected, and many people who lack connectivity to the Internet rely upon public libraries for access.  According to the ALA, public libraries play a role in four key areas of digital inclusion:

    • Public access technology,
    • Digital content services,
    • Digital literacy,
    • Services and programs related to civic engagement, education/learning, health and wellness, and workforce/employment

How do Libraries Foster Digital Inclusion?

As early adopters of technology and the only consistent providers of free public access to computers and the Internet, public libraries have a history of fostering digital inclusion through providing:

  • Quality public access to digital technologies, including public access computers and broadband Internet;
  • Access to digital content, including eBooks and online periodicals;
  • Services and programs that promote digital literacy, including training in basic computer and Internet skills; and
  • Services and programming related to community needs, including education, employment and workforce development, civic development, and health and wellness.  This includes providing and promoting access to summer reading activities, literacy and education programming, after school and homework programs, subscription-based job training websites, job skills workshops, assistance with unemployment filing, assistance with government programs and services, subscriptions to health and wellness databases, etc. (Bertot et al., 2015, p. xi)

The Lowdown

What new knowledge, skills or understanding have you gained?  (Description)

This week, I decided to go further in the exploration of technology access in libraries by exploring the concept of the digital divide.  Although the definition of the digital divide has changed over time, it is currently loosely defined as the gap between Internet haves and have-nots.  In a time when technology seems ubiquitous, it’s interesting to note that up to 16% of the American population does not have any connection to the Internet.  For many Americans, access is limited to public libraries.

I learned that the gap between technology haves and have-nots widens in rural communities, which tend to have less access to quality high-speed connections than their urban and suburban counterparts.  Public libraries are especially vital for technology access in these communities.

How can you use what you have learned?  (Application)

I think it’s important for librarians to understand the reality of the digital divide and to be able to identify whom it most affects.  Libraries have always been early adopters of technology, but it’s really important that they concentrate resources to reach out to those who have the least access–people in rural communities, individuals with low socioeconomic status, and ethnic minorities.  I think that it is important for librarians to be aware of the needs of the user community so they can be effective patron advocates.

How does it relate to library work?  (Reflection)

Information about the actual statistical differences between populations may be most relevant to those who work in libraries with greater communities of affected users, but it is important for all librarians to understand the impact of the digital divide.  The digital divide and digital inclusion are important new topics in library science that are only going to become more relevant with time, so the topic is directly related to library work.

What resources (activities) have helped you to understand and/or have been interesting to use?  (Activities/Resources)

American Library Association.  (2015). Public libraries lead the way to digital inclusion.  Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/offices/ors/public-libraries-lead-way-digital-inclusion

Bertot, J.C., Real, B., McDermott, A.J., & Jaeger, P.T. (2015).  2014 Digital inclusion survey: Survey findings and results. College Park, MD: Information Policy and Access Center.  Retrieved from http://digitalinclusion.umd.edu/sites/default/files/uploads/2014DigitalInclusionSurveyFinalRelease.pdf

File, T.  (2013). Computer and internet usage in the United States: Population characteristics.  Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau.  Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/p20-569.pdf

File, T. & Ryan, C.  (2014). Computer and internet usage in the United States: 2013.  Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau.  Retrieved from http://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2014/acs/acs-28.pdf

Information Policy & Access Center.  (2015). Digital literacy and public libraries.  College Park, MD: Information Policy and Access Center.  Retrieved from http://www.plinternetsurvey.org/analysis/public-libraries-and-digital-literacy

National Telecommunications and Information Administration.  (1999).  Falling through the net: Defining the digital divide.  Washington, DC: National Communications and Information Administration.  Retrieved from http://www.ntia.doc.gov/legacy/ntiahome/fttn99/FTTN.pdf

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