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