The Digital Divide Meets Everytown, USA
posted February 20, 2013 2:34 PM by Julie Steenson
Over and over again, you have heard (or read) about my small town in New Hampshire. We are the proverbial small New England town, complete with General Store and a gazebo on the Town Common. We have strong agricultural roots, but we are not a hick town. 97% of our population has education beyond the high school level, with almost 42% having a bachelor’s degree or higher (http://factfinder2.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/index.xhtml). While many in town still don’t have high-speed internet access, we have a lot of patrons who come in to use our Wi-Fi. I really don’t view the Digital Divide as just an access issue, but one of how to benefit from technology and internet access. Whenever I read about the Digital Divide, I tend to think of it in terms of big cities with wide socioeconomic and educational gaps. Yes, there is a digital disparity with our older population, but they are quick and eager learners. To be honest, the Digital Divide hasn’t seemed that relevant to my present situation, until recently.
Enter Roxanne…okay, that is not her name, and to protect her privacy, I will say very little about the real person or her real library need, other than to say a woman about my age (40-something) had a need to use the public access computers for a very important matter in her life, and she had absolutely no idea how to use a mouse, or how to access the internet, never mind fill in an online form….
She was so grateful for our assistance, and my co-worker and I provided a lot of assistance because truthfully, she had no idea what to do. I felt happy to help her, but also somewhat stunned by the whole transaction. She had an expired library card, which we discovered when she later asked if she could borrow a movie, and I had never seen her before. After bringing her card up to date, I gave her a tour of our relatively new building and invited her back if she needed any more help.
But I keep wondering about all the Roxannes… I naively assumed that the Digital Divide was a problem to other towns, other libraries. How do we reach community members who are still unplugged or who fell through the cracks of our education system? We exert most of our marketing efforts through electronic resources like e-newsletters, website, Facebook, etc., but what about Roxanne? It shouldn’t take a crisis for someone to re-discover the library and what we have to offer. It suddenly struck me that even in well-educated communities, we risk leaving people behind as libraries move forward to offering more and more digital services without offering the needed training to go with it. This serves as a lesson to me to keep a wider lens focused on my community and to think about what services we can and should provide in the future. Libraries can bridge the digital gap for their communities, but only if they remember to look deeper into the populations they serve.