Public Libraries Bridge the Digital Divide

In the glossary of her textbook, Sandra Hirsh defines the digital divide thusly:

Digital divide: the chasm between people who have access to the Internet, the hardware, and the ability to use it and those who do not. Often correlated with low socioeconomic status or rural locations. (395)

The term has been around for as long as the Internet has been a household term: “[it] first came to prominence in 1995 when the National Telecommunications and Information Administration published its study on the disparity in access to the Internet; this rapidly changed what it meant to be connected” (Hirsh 162). This disparity has persisted, even as technology expands and advances, and it’s become a greater and greater issue as society becomes more and more reliant on the Internet for jobs, education, bills, taxes, and entertainment.

Access, skills, knowledge, and interest are all factors that contribute to the divide, which is often correlated to inequality caused by socioeconomic status, ethnicity, and gender. As technology has increased prevalence, the digital divide has persisted for groups of people who are underprivileged. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation published a study that found this:

Although Internet use has increased substantially in the United States, nearly half of all American households don’t have computers or Internet access at home. Traditionally disadvantaged groups, including African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans and those with lower income and educational levels, remain among the least connected.

Internet access is a two-pronged problem, because users need access to hardware that runs a web browser, such as a desktop, tablet, or smart phone, in addition to hardware to provide a connection, such as a router, modem, or hotspot.

To the former issue, it’s difficult, if not impossible, for many low-income families to find $2,000 to drop on a MacBook or iPad. A smart phone is a more realistic investment, especially considering the prevalence of cell phones amongst teenagers and older. Though a fancy phone like that may seem like a poor way to spend money to some, that phone is the individual’s lifeline for anything and everything tech-related. In addition to making calls, the phone can be used for homework, bill paying, email, maintaining social and professional connections, and countless other vital tasks. A recent Pew study showed that “13% of U.S. adults with an annual household income of less than $30,000 are smartphone-dependent, compared with 1% of those whose family household income is $75,000 or more.”

Still, once the hardware is acquired, its use is limited if the household cannot afford to pay for Internet at home.

Are you feeling the doom and gloom yet? Enter: The Public Library! If you walk into any public library in America today, you’ll find desktop computers set up, ready for anyone with a library card to use. If a patron comes in with their own device, no problem; the library has WiFi. If the patron isn’t sure how to use any of this technology, there are frequently formal classes offered and often informal tips can be gained through asking a librarian. What if the patron can’t make it to the library as often as they need to, but they don’t have access to the Internet at home? Libraries such as New York Public Library are renting WiFi hotspots that patrons can take home up to a year.

School and academic libraries are also in on the game. School libraries are implementing bring-your-own-device programs for students who have the ability to purchase their own hardware and one-to-one device programs where the school purchases tablets or laptops for the students to use in their classroom for the year. Some let the students take the technology home; others are in-classroom only. Academic libraries frequently provide laptop carts available for free rental during class time (sound familiar to anyone?).

Resources like this make it possible, and even practical, for someone to get a degree, reliably pay bills, stay connected, and generally function in a tech-centered society. Physical libraries are playing an increasingly integral role in closing the digital divide in terms of access to technology, and the behind-the-scenes work librarians do ensure access to valuable, trust-worthy content, either through subscribing to good content or by supporting open access content. Through continued support to programs like these, librarians and libraries can help those disadvantaged groups of people to utilize technology that the more advantaged groups of people already are using, and thus these people can advance in society and create a better life.

Anderson, Monica. “6 Facts about Americans and Their Smartphones.” Pew Research Center. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Nov. 2015.

Hirsh, Sandra. Information Services Today: An Introduction. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc, 2015. Print.

“New Report Finds Libraries Help Close Digital Divide but Struggle to Sustain Public Access Computing Services.” Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Nov. 2015.

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