Without a Net: Confronting the Digital Divide

TLA 2011 LogoBlogging Live from TLA 2011

Many of you may have just been getting into Austin on Tuesday when Jessamyn West presented her session on confronting the digital divide. Or, perhaps you missed it because you had to attend a competing program. No matter the reason, I think her session was an incredibly important one for all librarians (and not just because it was a Texas State Library sponsored program) so I hope you will take some time and visit the Notes and Resources page she carefully crafted for our conference. (And, if you’d like to read much more about Jessamyn’s take on the digital divide, keep an eye out for her soon-to-be released book Without a Net: Librarians Bridging the Digital Divide.)

Some of the highlights?

  • According to a recent ALA report (and you can find the sources for all of these statistics in the Notes and Resources page), 71% of public libraries in the U.S. report that they are the only point of Internet access for people in their community.
  • 38% of Texans do not have broadband Internet access at home (34% is the national average), and 10% can’t get broadband at all.
  • 13% of Texans don’t use the Internet (the national average being 21%).
  • Populations/areas that have a constant stream of new residents (such as new immigrant populations) are especially prone to what Jessamyn referred to as “low tech poverty”.
  • According to a recent PEW survey, contrary to the belief that all teens have cell phones and are digitally connected, 25% of teens don’t own cell phones! That’s 1 in 4 teens without a cell phone — teens who cannot text other teens and/or receive texts themselves and who are not reachable 24/7.  
  • Bandwidth caps on smart phones — you pay more for more bandwidth with cell phones. Net neutrality doesn’t exist in the cell phone universe in the same way, according to Jessamyn. Libraries need to keep this in mind when designing/targeting smart phone users.
  • 81% of Texans own a computer (which means that about 1 in 5 Texans don’t).
  • Jessamyn emphasized Jakob Nielsen’s three types of digital divides:
    • an economic digital divide — those who have the money to pay for technology resources
    • a usability divide — those who may have the technology resources but who cannot use or access them (a good example are those with disabilities and those with low literacy)
    • an empowerment divide — those who have the technology resources and ability to use them, but who “do not make full use of the opportunities such technology affords”

It is easy to buy into some of the common media messages that everyone now owns a smartphone, is on Facebook,  that all kids today are “born digital” — so it’s important to keep up with the real facts and figures when planning (and advocating for) library programs and services. 

The digital divide has not — and will not — go away anytime in the near future. When you consider today’s economy, the aging of our population, and the increasing number of those with low digital information literacy it is incredibly clear — now more than ever before, libraries and librarians are sorely needed to help bridge the digital divide.

More to come from TLA 2011!

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