The Digital Divide, Part 3 of 3: The Digital Literacy Corps

Herein are some of the things I’ve been thinking about lately in regards to libraries and computers and digital literacy.  Some of this series will probably be “late pass” territory, but I’m trying to sort out what’s on my mind, and what I’ve been reading and experiencing.

This is part three of three. You should read part one  and part two first.  You know, if you want to.

So there was a big kerfuffle recently amongst library people, over this article in the New York Times:  Wasting Time Is New Divide in Digital Era.  The gist of the article is this: Kids whose parents didn’t go to college spend 90 minutes more per day exposed to media than other kids (with the implication that these children come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds). We have done a good job providing digital devices, or access to devices, however because the parents of children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are not digitally literate, they don’t know how to monitor their children’s screen time.

I agree that many parents of children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds probably need digital literacy training.  I think I have seen some of them in the library, as I described in the first piece in this series.

I have two quibbles with the article. I am a little uncomfortable with the characterization of “exposure to media” as time-wasting.  This smacks a bit of moralizing to me, the kind that has been common when more educated, upper class people make pronouncements about what less educated, poorer people should be doing with their time.* I can also see, as my sister pointed out, that poorer parents may be less likely to have someone who solely acts as the child’s caregiver.  The parent or parents most likely work full-time.  In these cases, the kid may spend less time being monitored.  So it may not be a case of not knowing how, it might be a case of the parent making the choice that food on the table is more important than keeping the kid off Facebook.

The part in the article that got librarians REALLY mad was this bit:

The new divide is such a cause of concern for the Federal Communications Commission that it is considering a proposal to spend $200 million to create a digital literacy corps. This group of hundreds, even thousands, of trainers would fan out to schools and libraries to teach productive uses of computers for parents, students and job seekers.

Librarians, especially school librarians, thought “Aren’t We Already the Digital Literacy Corps?”  School librarians have been very hard hit by our economy.  Many have received pink slips, are now asked to cover two or more schools, have had their assistants taken away, etc.  School librarians consider it their mission to teach children digital literacy, but because of a lack of funding are severely limited in the kinds of programs they can create and enact.  $200 million could really do a lot of good.  The FCC seemed to be overlooking librarians and the extensive infrastructure already in place which could be activated for this mission. We have since learned that the NY Times piece didn’t provide a clear picture of library and ALA involvement with this as yet unfunded project.

As Ms. Bullington points out in her follow-up blog, the public does not have a clear understanding of what librarians do.  And as the NY Times piece points out, and as I’ve discussed in my two previous blogs, the Digital Divide is a skills-based divide.  Adults on the have-not side need a good deal of help to gain these skills.  It is vital now for so many life activities: taxes, employment, raising children, retiring, socializing, and even using the library resources of the future.

I love libraries.  I have such fond childhood memories of wandering through stacks of paper books. I think they are great equalizers and community builders.

But my experiences, and this utter lack understanding of what librarians are all about in the digital era, are making me think that maybe we need a severe rebranding.  Maybe librarians need to go, and Digital Literacy Corps need to appear in their place.  It kind of sounds like it would come with a neat uniform, maybe a marching band outfit, or a cape and unitard.

There are so many good things we could do, if only we had those capes.

*Did you know that people used to be opposed to FICTION in libraries?  They thought that it was a waste of time and would create loose morals.  The current understanding is that it doesn’t matter so much WHAT children read; as long as they pick something which is interesting to them, they will improve their reading skills and be more literate individuals.

The Digital Divide, Part 2 of 3: The Haves

Herein are some of the things I’ve been thinking about lately in regards to libraries and computers and digital literacy.  Some of this series will probably be “late pass” territory, but I’m trying to sort out what’s on my mind, and what I’ve been reading and experiencing.

This is part two of three. You should read part one first.  You know, if you want to.

I read this opinion piece about The Philly Free Library not serving 21st century patrons.  The author has a lot of complaints which contain a kernel of truth, and a lot of misunderstanding.  For example:

In 2012, citizens want answers to their basic technology questions, not to be walked over to a book shelf to thumb through a 400-page book that is not even relevant because it was published in 2002; meanwhile, the patron’s 40 minutes of computer time ticks away at the library computer terminal.

A 400 page manual from 2002, no.  But a lot of people looking to improve their basic computer skills are more comfortable learning things via print, after all this is what they have done for the majority of their lives. This quote also illustrates an essential disconnect between providing reference (in which librarians are told to focus on instruction) and patron questions (in which a patron just wants an answer already). The author also says:

Instead of the library system hauling the majority of its materials across town from one branch to another, as is currently done (with gas at $4 per gallon), digitizing the library collection is eco-friendly, the wave of the future.

There are at least two problems with this, the first of course being a complete misunderstanding of the library’s ability to digitize it’s collection (in case you don’t know – 1. it would be illegal, due to that pesky little thing called copyright, to scan and make freely available most of a library’s collection.  Particularly a public library’s collection, which would not have a lot of older works that have passed into public domain. If you’re interested, look up the Google Book Search lawsuit to see what a morass this kind of thing is. And – 2. It takes a lot of time, money, fancy equipment, and staff time.  A LOT.  Really, really, a lot. Many libraries, being government funded, are running way under-staffed.  And of course have very tight budgets.  Even if we could legally do it, we couldn’t do it practically).

The second problem is these citizens who have the “basic technology questions” referred to in the first quote.  If a person doesn’t have the skills to use a mouse, how will they be able to use this digital collection?  Reducing access to a library’s physical books removes another basic life activity from people on the other side of the divide.

I think this article, with all it’s misunderstandings, does bring up some good points that many libraries struggle with:

  1. Outdated collections not only give patrons bad information, they really make libraries look like backwards institutions
  2. Libraries could do more to serve digital “haves,” they’d love access to a wider variety of software programs, better user interfaces (including mobile apps, etc.), and more digital content.
  3. Patrons really don’t understand what reference is.  We need to be better about providing service that satisfies both the patron’s question and the library’s mission to promote literacy skills.
  4. Patrons don’t understand what libraries and librarians do in general.  (At my last job, at a very special library, an employee from another department asked me “So what do you guys do here in the library?  Just kind of tidy up?”)
  5. Patrons view many of the restrictions placed on us (e.g. copyright, or limitations on ebooks) as our fault. These are seen as LIBRARY FAIL.

But the biggest misunderstanding in this article is misunderstanding what it means to be on the other side of the digital divide.  It’s not just “oh these people need someone to tell them once how to attach something to an email,” it’s that these people need comprehensive, intensive, and extensive HELP.  Maybe more than a library’s current staffing, materials, and infrastructure can provide.

The Digital Divide, Part 1 of 3: The Have Nots

Herein are some of the things I’ve been thinking about lately in regards to libraries and computers and digital literacy.  Some of this series will probably be “late pass” territory, but I’m trying to sort out what’s on my mind, and what I’ve been reading and experiencing.

In library school, we talked about the Digital Divide.  This is what I got out of our discussions:

A certain percentage of people, both here in America and in developing countries, don’t have computers or the internet, so they are left out and behind. We need to give them computers and the internet, or make sure they can have them through the library, in order for them to have the same advantages and experiences the rest of society has.

– Me, in library school

But I think maybe the best way to understand what The Digital Divide really means, is to hang out in an urban public library.  Here are some of the people I’ve encountered over the past few months:

  • A 70 year old kindergarten teacher, still working, who was told to check her pension fund online.  She navigated through most of the webform in about 20 minutes, and then called me over when it asked for an email address.  She didn’t know what to put because she didn’t have one.
  • A man who came in looking for tax forms.  When I said “I’m sorry, we don’t have them – the government is moving everything online,” he replied, “I’m an 80 year old man, I’m not going to waste time learning how to use a computer.”  (We printed out some forms for him).
  • A woman who called me over because her computer wasn’t working.  It turns out she was clicking both sides of the mouse multiple times – the computer behaved normally when I suggested she just click the left side, and not more than twice in rapid succession.
  • A couple looking for a tenant on Craigslist called me over because after they clicked a link, they didn’t know how to navigate back to the original post.
  • A man trying to reply to a Craigslist ad for someone to help put Ikea furniture together.  When he clicked the reply-to address, outlook popped up.  He didn’t understand why it wouldn’t let him email. He did have a yahoo address, which he typed into the url field when I suggested he needed to go through his email account in the browser instead.  After we got to his inbox I said “Now just cut and paste the craigslist address”  He looked at me blankly.  So I walked him through how to cut and paste.
  • A man trying to format a Word resume for a custodial position, who didn’t know how to hit backspace to get rid of an unintentional carriage return, nor how to use the line spacing feature.
  • A woman trying to print out resumes for herself and her friend, who didn’t know how to use spell check.
  • A woman who was upset because our computer rearranged her list of documents, which she had painstakingly put in alphabetical order.  I showed her how to change the folder to list view and sort by name.  We then had a very long and frustrating discussion about the difference between doc and docx.

So you can see that it’s not just “oh, let’s give them access to a computer and they’ll figure it out.”  They won’t. It takes more than a one hour reservation on a public computer to gain these skills. And as more and more essential life activities move into the digital realm, the disadvantages of being on the wrong side of the divide get more and more serious.  You need to be computer savvy to do your taxes, to get a job (even if that job will never require you to use a computer), to find housing, and to get your benefits.

So now I would say:

The digital divide is not just “oh Suzy doesn’t have a home computer so she can’t go on Facebook to socialize with her friends/children/grandchildren.”  The digital divide is “Suzy doesn’t know how to use a mouse so Suzy can’t get a job.”

– Me, a year after graduating library school