On the Front Lines of the Digital Divide ...
At 3 p.m. on a weekday in the Maplewood Library, teens begin to sweep through the building to access the public computers. When asked why they choose to use the library, they cite required group projects, the need to access specific software programs like PowerPoint, the competition among three siblings fighting over access to the sole computer at home, the dial-up modem access that fails to provide adequate bandwidth, and their desire to work in a safe and quiet after-school space.
Every day, librarians are called upon to support job-seekers who have no computer access, lack rudimentary computing skills, have little knowledge of how to conduct an online job search, and have had no experience submitting an online application. Most workforce programs are available from 8 am to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. Heavy demand has forced many public libraries to ration computer time to one hour per day per patron. And still they come.
Meantime, the surge in the number of seniors who depend on public-library computers represents a fascinating trend. They, along with our low income patrons, are least likely to have a home computer. As a group, seniors are the primary participants in our basic computing classes (Introduction to the Mouse, Internet Basics, and Introduction to E-mail). Last year the Ramsey County Library introduced computing to more than 1,000 learners but was not able to fully meet the demand for classes. As more governmental forms are available exclusively online, seniors often find processes like the Medicare Part D online enrollment to be simply baffling. Our patrons seek access to online content like high quality medical information web sites. They want to learn how to e-mail their grandkids in Boston or look at the photos on their daughter's Facebook page. They want to fully participate in a 21st-century world of information.
Access to Internet-connected computers and mobile devices has dramatically improved the information opportunities available to enhance our lives and the vitality of our communities. Unfortunately, this access is far from universal, and significant barriers to digital inclusion still exist. The digital renaissance, while opening new doors to a growing number of beneficiaries, has also closed the door on other citizens, who lack the access and skills to take advantage of information and community resources that are increasingly available only in an electronic format.
Public librarians experience the digital divide on a daily basis. Last year, Ramsey County Libraries' circulation grew 9 percent. Enrollment in technical and information literacy classes grew 24 percent. Use of public computers grew 38 percent. Use of our public wireless networks grew 61 percent. The Ramsey County Library system averaged 4,200 hours of public computing use across seven suburban libraries each week, last year. Libraries remain important intermediaries in maximizing the availability of information and are becoming essential community centers of digital and media training.
What is driving this demand? Universal access to digital information and media resources will not be realized until three key issues are addressed; infrastructure, adoption, and technical/information literacy. Individuals may have access to a computer but not a printer. Internet access may be available but not affordable. There may be access to an Internet-connected computer but no ability to effectively use a mouse or create an e-mail account. These are the challenges we encounter in public libraries every day.
To bridge the digital divide, we as a society have a lot to accomplish. We need to begin with a few ambitious, yet pragmatic, first steps.We need to implement a statewide vision and make a long-term commitment to universal information access. Recommendations from Minnesota's Ultra High Speed Broadband Task Force begin to outline measurable goals and support national and international benchmarks. This region must begin to implement these recommendations with or without Federal stimulus money. It is a critical investment in our future. Institutional stakeholders, community and business leaders, elected officials, and community advocates need to create new partnerships and alliances to support wider efforts, like those the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is fostering in Ramsey County and the City of St. Paul, to connect public, private and nonprofit organizations to accelerate the expansion of broadband infrastructure, increase broadband adoption and improve technical and information literacy across our region. Complementary initiatives, like the broadband network linking several cities, school districts and libraries in suburban Ramsey County, have already resulted in significant government agency cost savings and improvements to public services. The most cost-effective first step to accelerate broadband deployment is to create universal access to broadband through the nations' public library systems. Libraries provide a geographically distributed infrastructure already in place. We need to concentrate our focus on improving access to high quality computer and Internet resources in public libraries, not only though investments in technology, but by also expanding the availability of these resources at times people need them.
The consequences of not acting will be huge disparities in academic achievement, worker productivity, and civic and economic participation. Taking action, especially now, will provide essential tools to improve educational outcomes, strengthen our workforce, reduce the cost of service delivery, and enhance the competitiveness and livability of our region.
© 2010 Pioneer Press