As people working in the information industry, the ‘digital divide’ is an important issue that many of you will be aware of. The concept refers to the gap between those with opportunities to access information and communications technologies (ICTs), such as the internet, and those without such access (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). While information may be widely available online, many people are not able to access this information. And without this access, these people can be left behind in employment, education, and social connection. With the world moving to put everything online, certain groups of people are more vulnerable to missing out. People from low income households, people with disabilities, people living in rural areas, the elderly population and many more can be at a disadvantage (The Conversation).
It is an economic and social inequality issue, and something that relates directly to the work we do within libraries. Libraries are seeking to bridge the digital divide in many ways. Libraries offer free access to computers, internet and other ICTs. New programs in the US and Canada offer lendable Wi-Fi hotspots so people can access the internet on public transport and in their homes, rather than being limited to the library’s physical spaces. An innovative rural library in the US has utilised ‘Super Wi-Fi’ to extend the libraries internet to be accessible in the main street and town park. While great progress has been made in ensuring greater access to ICTs, especially mobile technologies, there is a ‘second level’ to the digital divide. Providing access alone is simply not enough.
“It’s not only the ability to use the computer, to maybe use Google; it’s the ability to navigate very carefully and get to the right information,” American Library Association (ALA) President Barbara Stripling said. “[It’s] the ability to find evidence to support your conclusion, and make sure that what conclusions you’re drawing and the new understandings that you’re gaining, actually are based on credible, real, and accurate information. That’s what we mean by digital literacy skills. And that’s what we mean when we say there’s a second level digital divide.” (from American Libraries Magazine).
This is why digital literacy classes in school libraries, academic libraries and public libraries are so valuable. When I worked in high school libraries, it was very important for us to ensure digital literacy was embedded in the curriculum, teaching students to evaluate information found online and search effectively. This is carried on into university, where I now work. Many classes are devoted to teaching students about advanced searching techniques, as well as using reputable sources and scholarly databases. Many public libraries also offer sessions to help people understand how to use computers, the internet and download resources. We all have a part to play in bridging the digital divide.
It is important to note that the digital divide not only happens within countries, it is an international issue happening across countries. Known as the global digital divide, it is primarily a gap between developed and developing countries. This concept is further explored (with some great data visualisations) in this article by SciDevNet. Chowdhury (2002) has written a paper discussing how digital libraries can “play a significant role in bridging the gap” through developments such as free access to e-resources. An action plan is also provided for countries to exploit these benefits. The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) has also been calling for countries to recognise that libraries can be utilised to help bridge the digital divide. Another project working towards bridging the gap is WiderNet, which you can read about in this recent ILN post.
Governments around the world need to understand that this issue, both nationally and internationally, can be dealt with if they work together with libraries and provide funding for these types of projects, and we as information professions need to advocate for this.
Clearly this topic demands much more analysis than this short post can provide. For an in-depth discussion you can begin by reading Understanding the Digital Divide by the OECD.
What does your library do to help bridge the gap?
– Michelle De Aizpurua, ILN Content Officer.