Railroad tracks used to divide some communities into the right side and the wrong side. People on the wrong side of the tracks lacked both social standing and the resources to better themselves. The term “digital divide” similarly refers to those who have access to the Internet and those who don’t. Libraries, and especially public libraries, are at the forefront of attempts to bridge the digital divide.
What is the digital divide?
What constituted the digital divide changes over time. When the general public first began to acquire computers at home, poor people and minorities were less likely to have them. After all, they were expensive and not easy to use.
When the Internet began its transformative influence on American life, poor people and minorities were less likely to use it. In the beginning, everyone used dial-up.
When broadband became available, poor people and minorities–assuming that they had computers or access to the Internet at all–were more likely to be stuck with slower connections. By this time, the digital divide did not represent only the gap between racial and income groups. People living in rural areas, regardless of income, often lacked–and still lack–high-speed access to the Web.
The foregoing statements assume the use of a desk-top computer. Recently, lap-tops, tablet computers, and cell phones have become alternative, and often preferred ways to get online.
Blacks and Hispanics are still less likely than whites to own desktop computers, but equally likely to have Internet access through these other devices, especially phones. Does that mean the end of the digital divide?
Unfortunately, no. According to a report from Associated Press, a new digital divide has emergedfor minorities. Blacks and Hispanics also tend to use the Web too much for entertainment and not enough for empowerment. They are more engaged than before, but the quality of that engagement is too often suspect.
This new digital divide brings up the concept of digital literacy, which the American Library Association’s Office for Information Technology Policy defines as “the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information requiring both cognitive and technical skills.”
Why does it matter?
More than 90% of the most well-off Americans have a high-speed connection to the Internet at home. Fewer than a third of of the poorest Americans do. Fewer than 50% of Blacks, Hispanics, the elderly, or rural populations have broadband access at home.
Without broadband access, these people cannot apply for jobs at more than 80% of Fortune 500 companies. These companies–among many smaller ones, educational institutions, etc.–require online job applications.
Computers play an increasing role in education. Students who do not have a computer at home with high-speed access to the Internet have a 6-8% lower grade point average than students who do.
Home broadband access gives consumers an advantage. Potentially, people with that access can save more that $7,000 every year.
People who have Internet access but use it for nothing but entertainment miss out on numerous advantages. Besides what I’ve already mentioned, they consume Internet content without creating any.
They might play a role in promoting their favorite content and enhancing the content creator’s reputation. But they provide nothing for anyone else to promote and therefore forfeit some real, tangible benefits of the online community.
What are libraries doing about it?
Libraries provide both computers and high-speed Internet access free of charge for anyone with a library card. Chances are that the local public library is the only place that does so.
About a third of the population might use a public-library computer to get online in any given year. I doubt if anyone keeps statistics that would how how many of these people would not otherwise be able to get on at all, but it must be a significant number.
In addition, library staff provide personal assistance and formal training in the use of computers, the Internet, common applications, and so on. Library staff can also help patrons design searches for information and point them in the direction of the most useful and authoritative content.
And through their subscriptions to proprietary databases, they provide content not available except through the library. (They probably make the same databases available from home for people with home computers. Patrons need only go through the library’s website and enter their library card number.
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