Feb 02 2023

Leveraging Libraries to End the Digital Divide

Public libraries are key to enhancing access for underserved communities.

State technology leaders have a multibillion-dollar opportunity right now to end the digital divide as we know it. With the first installment of federal deployment and digital equity planning funds in hand, more than a dozen states have kicked off coordinated efforts with federal, state and local leaders in pursuit of internet for all. Leveraging America’s libraries can avoid duplication of work and accelerate progress.

In 2019, public libraries hosted roughly 224 million internet use sessions for some of the roughly 54 million Americans who used the internet in public places. During the pandemic, libraries explored new and innovative ways to extend broadband beyond their physical footprints. These included amplifying Wi-Fi signals, lending internet hotspots, equipping library vehicles with internet access and even underwriting home internet access for low-income families. 

While 73 percent of local government leaders say libraries play an important or highly important role in providing broadband access in their communities, we know this access is a complement and not a replacement for home access.

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Proximity to Libraries Boosts Community Connectivity

In my home state of California last year, folks were lined up outside the Cesar Chavez Library in Salinas to get assistance enrolling in free or low-cost internet. Libraries across the country are increasing awareness of the federal Affordable Connectivity Program, and often assist with enrollment.

Recent research found a correlation between the presence of public libraries in a given ZIP code and ACP enrollment. The “library effect” is associated with 6 percent higher ACP enrollment in ZIP codes with public libraries compared with those without.

We have made some progress over the past two decades, but persistent and often systemic gaps remain. The $2.75 billion Digital Equity Act, part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, specifically recognizes these disparities with a focus on “covered populations,” which include:

  • Low-income households
  • People with disabilities
  • Aging populations
  • People facing language barriers
  • Racial and ethnic minorities
  • People who have been incarcerated
  • Rural residents
  • Veterans

These gaps relate not only to accessible broadband and devices but also the skills needed to effectively use technology.

READ MORE: How libraries provide a lifeline through equitable access to tech.

Libraries Are a Powerful Resource for Digital Literacy

Digital skills are vital to digital equity. However, programs to build those skills have historically received little federal attention or funding, particularly relative to broadband technology investments.

Library workers are particularly well suited to this role. In fact, more than 88 percent of all public libraries offer some kind of formal or informal digital literacy programming. Libraries meet learners where they are, whether that means helping a patron establish an email account or offering instruction on advanced coding and digital creation.

Digital literacy must be built on basic literacy and extend beyond technical skills to include critical thinking, problem-solving and a mindset of lifelong learning. Technology is constantly changing, and residents need to stay abreast of these changes to stay connected and adapt and use new devices, platforms and services.

Sustainable broadband adoption and full participation in the digital economy demand increased attention to skills building. Libraries are highly trusted as sources of information and venues to acquire digital skills training.

From the beginning of the web, library workers have provided public access to technology and assisted people in gaining the skills needed to thrive online. Libraries provide:

  • Reach, with a physical presence and technology infrastructure in communities of all sizes, including 17,000 public library locations
  • Expertise and resources, with trained staff experienced in tackling digital equity gaps, boosting literacies, and developing collections and resources relevant to local needs
  • Sustainable, flexible collaboration, which strengthens state and local networks

EXPLORE: How local libraries of things help to address digital inequity.

Expanding Capacity for Libraries Benefits Surrounding Areas

A new report from the American Library Association further details these assets and the work underway to increase digital equity as a means of expanding educational and economic opportunity for all.

One example is the New Jersey Library Association’s Access Navigator program. Funded by the American Rescue Plan Act, Access Navigator provides a cohort of skilled trainers that rotate through 12 participating libraries. As a result, patrons in nine New Jersey counties receive individualized assistance for digital skills and job training. Such programs are taking place around the nation, many as a result of collaborations with stakeholders in the public and private sectors.

I invite government technology leaders to leverage the power and potential of our libraries in their work. Include state and local library leaders in your broadband planning and outreach efforts. Include libraries and other community anchor institutions in broadband deployment to unserved and underserved areas. Explore and expand the capacity of libraries to boost digital equity for all.

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