Bridging the Digital Divide One Load of Laundry at a Time
Wash and Learn
Libraries are coming up with innovative solutions for reaching out to people all over the community. Their new strategies take into consideration the different types of situations people may be facing when it comes to access to things like books, the internet, and other educational resources. Recently, Libraries Without Borders came up with an idea to address this need for patrons by meeting them where they’re at in the community: laundromats!
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Libraries Without Borders
Libraries Without Borders is a nonprofit organization that is working on behalf of underserved communities to increase access to information. They were founded in 2007 and have not only worked in the United States but also around the world to promote equitable access to education. Libraries Without Borders currently operates in over 10 states and the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. This organization works on developing tools and programs to help their community access important resources.
One of the major challenges this organization is currently tackling relates to the effects of the pandemic and the digital divide that has continued to limit low-income communities. Over 20 million people living in the United States lack access to reliable internet and over 25 percent of adults do not have access to a computer. Libraries Without Borders recognizes the important role that libraries and local nonprofits play in addressing this problem and closing the literacy gap for many Americans.
Transforming Laundromats Across the Country
This initiative stemmed from a need to provide digital and literary access to people in the community that may have barriers in accessing their local libraries. The goal is to transform over 30,000 laundromats in the United States into digital learning communities. The Wash and Learn Initiative (WALI) gives families the resources they need in a space they commonly visit.
This was a great place to start reaching the community for multiple reasons. Families usually wash their clothes on a weekly or biweekly basis which means they are consistently visiting these places. In addition, doing laundry comes with a long wait time and families are usually spending an hour and a half just washing and drying clothes. Laundromats are also easily accessible because their operating hours are much longer than public libraries with some even being open 24/7.
The Wash and Learn Initiative was first tested in 2018 by a professor at NYU. They began by equipping local New York City laundromats with a “Laundry & Literacy Kit” which was designed to create a literary-rich space for children and families. Librarians were even onsite to engage with those that came in.
What they found after observing these spaces was that there was a major benefit to implementing playful and educational materials into the laundromat environment. Children engaged in 30 times more literacy activities in laundromats with literacy areas than in laundromats without dedicated spaces. Parents were also more likely to observe their children’s literacy activities. Overall, there were positive outcomes. The full impact report can be read here.
Shakopee Laundromat’s Success Story
Giant Wash Coin Laundry is another Wash and Learn space that hosted a pilot program. This location partnered with their local county library to serve families that come in for laundry on Monday nights. Sponsored by Libraries Without Borders, the program was able to provide children’s books in multiple languages including Spanish and Somali, laptops, and internet hotspots for customers to use.
Meeting People Where They Are At
Libraries Without Borders operate under this idea that they are willing to meet people where they are rather than coming up with innovative ideas that people cannot access. This means providing resources to those who need it most where they need it most. Looking into customized solutions is the way to go when it comes to solving these problems. Laundromats aren’t the only place where literacy centers are being set up. The nonprofit has also created spaces in churches and manufactured housing communities. Their priority when it comes to this is to problem solve through the lens of the user in order to best design a solution for them.
Looking to the Future
The Wash and Learn Initiative continues to develop pop-up sites throughout the country and has established sites in California, Michigan, Minnesota, Texas, Maryland, and North Carolina. Wash and Learn stories are appearing all over the country and are engaging with new organizations and people in order to better serve the community.
Recently, Libraries Without Borders received funding from the National Library of Medicine for this initiative. The resources provided to the community have expanded from literary and digital needs to also supplying health literacy toolkits and guides. These creative endeavors have impacted many families across the country and are just another important step towards creating a more equitable learning environment.