Public libraries bridge the digital divide

  • Griswold Memorial Library in Colrain. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Chelsea Jordan-Makely at the Colrain library on Wednesday. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

For the Recorder
Published: 12/5/2019 10:26:06 AM
Modified: 12/5/2019 10:25:56 AM

As a librarian, I have been fortunate to work in a handful of different countries and states, from large urban areas like Denver and Vancouver to my present role as the director of the Griswold Memorial Library in Colrain.

Though these libraries and the communities they served varied greatly in some regards, one problem they all share in common was bridging the “digital divide” by providing access to technology and digital skills that affect so many people. Anyone who works in public libraries can probably attest that helping our patrons with technology has become a central part of our day-to-day activities. Yet, I still find that many people I meet are surprised to learn that libraries provide such resources and services. Hence, I wanted to share some information about the digital divide and its effects on individuals and communities, and give a few examples of how public libraries can help individuals and bolster local economies through access to technology, resources, programming, and other services.

The term digital divide refers to “patterns of unequal access to information technology based on income, race, ethnicity, gender, age, and geography,” according to the book “Virtual Inequality: Beyond the Digital Divide” by Karen Mossberger, Caroline J. Tolbert, Mary Stansbury. This definition emphasizes access to information technology, but in fact, the problem is larger than the tools themselves. The authors of the book explain, “having access to a computer is insufficient if individuals lack the skills they need to take advantage of technology.”

The digital divide was first recognized in the 1990s, but persists today. Besides access to hardware such as computers and mobile devices, connectivity itself often presents as a yawning gap, especially in local hilltowns such as Colrain and Heath. Thus, the digital divide manifests first and foremost as a lack in access, but creates some devastating ripple effects; these include the skills divide, exclusion from economic opportunities and health care information, and civic engagement.

That public libraries help people to go online is hardly news. Besides using a computer or laptop, libraries also provide free wifi. Many libraries leave their networks on overnight and do not require passwords to connect, even when the library is closed. Indeed, it is not uncommon to arrive at work and find someone huddled in the doorway or in their car. Such has been the case in every public library I’ve worked in, it is not specific to rural communities.

Lending connectivity

Did you know that many public libraries lend hotspots? These are small, portable devices that connect laptops and mobile devices to the Internet. They can be checked out just like any other item from the library’s collection. As hotspots rely on a cellular signal, they are not right for every community, but where that is not a problem, hotspots help low-income families and people who are underhoused or living in temporary housing to get online more easily. 

Public libraries also provide access to a variety of other technologies, if not for check-out than through maker spaces or in-house loans. Examples of unusual items for loan at public libraries nowadays include digital cameras, robots, and Arduino or Makey Makey kits, the latter being great tools for learning to code. Maker spaces, like the one at Springfield City Library, offer tools like 3D printing, videography equipment, and audiorecording equipment, which can be critical not just for students but also for entrepreneurs. Speaking of, it would be silly to write an article about libraries and the digital divide without a mention of all the printing we help people with on a day-to-day basis. Even in an increasingly digital world, printing can be critical when it comes to applying for an apartment or a loan, or advertising a service. 

Beyond access to hardware, public libraries offer all sorts of digital loans. At the Griswold Memorial Library, in Colrain, for example, we provide e-books, digital audiobooks, digital magazines, and Mango, a really fun application for language learning. Other libraries offer streaming movies and music through apps like Hoopla and Freegal and online courses, such as Lynda.com.

Visit your local library’s website or ask in person what is available, and take it for a test drive if you’ve not already.

Help is available

If all this seems intimidating, fear not — library workers and volunteers are here to help. Inquire what programs are available at your library or at other surrounding libraries. These reseources are free and available to the public, but may require you to sign up in advance. Many libraries offer one-on-one technology help, sometimes known as “Book a Librarian.” This resources has facilitated some of my most memorable interactions with library patrons over the years. I’ve helped with everything from the very basics, like how to use a mouse or search online, to applying for jobs online and selling a vehicle on Craigslist.

Access to technology and tech training can change lives. I know this first-hand, because it was just 12 years ago that I took an Excel class at my local public library, which in turn helped me in a job interview that changed the course of my career. Today, I have the joy of helping others to improve their digital skills and access information and opportunities. Public libraries are critical infrastructure, helping individuals and our communities to bridge the digital divide. In turn, these resources and services can bolster local economies. Check out what technology and services are available at public libraries near you.

Chelsea Jordan-Makely is the library director at the Griswold Memorial Library in Colrain, and serves on the Public Library Association’s Digital Literacy Committee. She has worked in libraries since 2009. Email the Griswold Memorial Library at griswold@colrain-ma.gov, or call 413-624-3619.




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