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.