Digital Equity Means More than Just Access to the Internet
Libraries are known for providing many important services and resources to their communities. However, for those who aren’t as familiar with library landscapes, the top things that come to mind that libraries provide are books and computers. This isn’t surprising especially because libraries are major supporters of literacy when it comes to knowing how to read and how to navigate digital spaces. Books and computers are also some of the most commonly seen objects in the library. At first glance, it can be easy for some to assume that these are the focuses and miss out on additional resources like classes, programs, skilled staff, etc.
Closing the digital divide has been an important mission that libraries are working to tackle. The rise in technology use and the need for technology on a daily basis has revealed the huge gap that some communities face. This is why libraries are also stepping into new roles and developing new strategies in order to best help library patrons. Libraries are places that provide equity of access for everyone regardless of their own means. Taking a step towards the future and working the better the present involves a dedication towards digital equity.
Beyond Internet Use
Digital equity relies heavily on the ability to access the internet. That is a concrete fact when it comes to creating equal access to services in a digital age. However, once the ability to access WiFi is determined, digital equity really encompasses more than just the internet. The aim becomes focused on education, entertainment, entrepreneurship, and personal enrichment. Providing a means for community members to participate in these benefits of technology is when true digital equity can be achieved.
Having the right equipment is also extremely important to ensure digital equity in communities. Oftentimes it is not just the internet that is needed and members of the community are also lacking the devices that would enable them to use the internet. Libraries have been working on solutions to this by creating a “library of things” type setup that is geared towards providing devices to people who need it.
The Los Angeles Public Library created a Tech2go program that lets patrons check out iPad Mini tablets with preloaded apps along with a mobile hotspot. They also expanded to providing Dell laptops and Google Nexus tablets to the community which fills a huge gap for those who don’t have a way to use the internet from home. Other libraries are following suit and they’re not only focused on web-browsing-based devices, having included things like cameras, projectors, and streaming players to the list.
Digital Equity in Entertainment
Life isn’t all work and no play and libraries understand that. While many library users visit the library so they can do essential tasks like check bank accounts, job search, or pay bills, the library also strives to provide equal access to digital entertainment. These help people explore hobbies, have fun, and even relax at home after a busy or stressful day.
The Deerfield Public Library in Illinois is just one of the libraries that have added some cool options for patrons to borrow. They started out by lending Roku players which have the ability to stream movies, music, and television shows. These were all equipped with Netflix subscriptions as well as a few other streaming services so people could enjoy watching TV from home. Patrons that needed it could also check out wireless hotspots. In addition, the library also has an inventory of projectors, VR glasses, drones, telescopes, etc. for community members to use.
Education for the Community
Education is something that can happen at any stage of life. Libraries do their part to close the gap in educational resources for students and adults. This can look different depending on who needs the help. During the pandemic, for example, many students were left with unequal resources at home to do remote learning. Not only were some lacking internet and devices, they also needed to understand how to navigate learning solely online. The technology gap here is apparent because not all students grow up with internet experience and may not have parents who are able to guide them.
This is where librarians step in and help students become independent internet users in an educational setting. While kids know how to play games and watch YouTube videos, they need help to find online learning resources, supplemental materials, and sources for research. Homework help sessions at the library or even one-on-one sessions with a librarian can do a lot in helping students stay on track.
Supporting Creative Minds
Libraries are also working towards digital equity by helping creative minds explore without being limited by the inability to access materials. This relates to library goals in a lot of ways because libraries promote critical thinking by encouraging people to read, learn, etc. The Sacramento Public Library prioritizes technology and has created a modern library that is responsive to the needs of the community. This is why they provide GoPro cameras, crafting tools, and even musical instruments to the community. The Seattle Public Library also has some cool programs in place to increase technology access while encouraging creative growth. They have different learning labs set up to help kids learn things like coding and science. They even have robot backpacks for kids to check out to learn about robotics from home.
Outreach and Advertising
Along with supplying resources to the community to close the digital gap, libraries are also ensuring that the information about these resources is as accessible as possible. By implementing different outreach strategies, these services become visible to all members of the community regardless of their online access. This means that some libraries are advertising their services through traditional means along with social media. They rely on radio stations, newspapers, and television to get the message across. Many have also gotten creative by creating giant yard signs for library WiFi zones and using window space of the library as another way to broadcast their intentions. The Williamsburg Regional Library partnered with the school foundation to send direct postcards to specific neighborhoods and worked with the health foundation to print fliers for food distribution bags. By finding ways to reach these audiences so they are aware of the digital resources available, libraries are also closing the digital divide.
How We Move Forward in the Age of COVID-19
Future work in this area only requires library staff and advocates to become more innovative and adaptable. The Urban Libraries Council is just one of the many entities working on these issues and already has an action team in place to foster digital equity as we move forward from the pandemic. As shown during the past year, “go-to digital inclusion approaches- including reliance on physical spaces for offering digital access- are not viable as long-term solutions.” Many committees of educators, librarians, and community leaders are already working together to address this. Their concerns focus on bringing awareness to the impact of the digital divide’s impact in different communities and then making progress towards achieving digital equity.
Contributing to research like this journalist does by comparing pre and post-COVID library activities in three different communities also offers us a wealth of information on digital disparities and help us develop unique solutions. By recognizing the urgency of this problem and being open to new approaches, libraries can really do their part in improving digital access for all.