Access to tech, public libraries, and the Museum of Me

“Museum of Me,” a video produced by Dominican University professor Katie Kirsch, is a terrific representation of something I’ve long felt to be true (and have said to my children probably more times than is necessary): It’s best to think of the Internet as a big oak tree that sits in your village square, right next to your mother’s best friend’s house, and across the street from the police station. For good or ill, whatever you stick up on that tree is visible to everybody.

It’s important to note, though, that my use here of the phrase “for good or ill” is not meant (at least in this case!) as a sneaky way of saying “really, though: It’s for ill.”

So much of what we do online can have strong, positive reverberations, often beyond our knowledge of its impact. As I assist public library patrons who may be hesitant, or conversely over-eager, to share their “meat world” existence in cyber space, I think it will be important to bear both the “for good” and the “for ill” aspects in mind — we’re forever building additions to our personal Museums of Me. How do we want those museums to look? What function do they want them to serve?

This brings me directly to Tonya Roscorla’s piece “School Libraries Cultivate Digital Literacy,” in particular the very first challenge to digital literacy that she raises: Access to technology.

While Roscorla was clearly writing with school media specialists in mind, I already know that as a public librarian, I will be working with many patrons — of all ages, walks of life, and educational levels — as they attempt to overcome the hurdle of limited access to technology.

Most often, the digital divide is a product of income inequality or lack of local broadband access — in these cases, the only access people have to the internet or any high-tech devices is via their public library. Less experience naturally leads to a lesser understanding of how any of these new technologies work, which in turn can lead to difficulties with curating the resulting “Museum of Me.”

Working with patrons as they expand their experiences allows me to provide guidance that they might otherwise never receive — particularly if they’re young and in a school district that has suffered library and tech budget cuts.

Yet it’s important to remember that many people experience a different kind of “digital divide” — the kind that happens when you simply don’t have the time, interest, or wherewithal to stay up-to-date on every new device or platform in common use.

This came home to me as I signed up for Medium. I initially clicked on “Sign in with Twitter,” as that was the first and most obvious choice — but then noted that Medium would be able to tweet from my account if I used that option.

Note the haziness of every feature other than the “Log in with Twitter” button.

One of the most important elements of keeping control of your media presence is keeping control of who has access to it, and letting a third party tweet from my account absolutely doesn’t fit into the kind of control I seek in my online life.

I went back to Medium’s home page, clicked on the decidedly less-emphatic “other options” button, and found I could sign in through Google without giving up anything more than my name and email address (of course, it could be argued that Google knows everything about me through my email address, and is making use of that information, but at the end of the day, there’s only so much one can control!).

This is the kind of thing that people who are unfamiliar with a variety of internet platforms may not know that they should consider, and those with only a little experience may not be aware that they need to be vigilant about monitoring the changes that various outlets/platforms/social media make in their privacy settings and so on.

I agree with school media specialist Andy Plemmons, who was quoted by Roscorla as saying:

I feel very strongly about students being able to be creators of information rather than just receiving information. And so, part of being able to create information is to be able to use all of these technologies to be creative.

It’s vital that we remember (and teach our patrons, young and old) that “creating information” is just that — and that it is manifestly not allowing new developments to shape your online presence for you.

The sheer ubiquity of change in all things tech related, not to mention the tenacity of income- and broadband-inequality, mean that a large percentage of patrons at any public library are in a constant state of having to overcome limits to access. Public librarians have an important role to play in helping to ameliorate those limits, every day.

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