I was at a party a couple of weeks ago where we started discussing how much information has gone digital and the number of things these days that have to be done online. I mentioned my concerns, based on library patrons I help, about the number of people who are being left behind as all things digital become the norm. My companion’s response surprised me: Oh, so you actually see those people we keep hearing about?
Actually, in some ways that response scares me. My friend is politically active and involved in social issues. But this statement sounded a bit like she had half expected that the reality was somehow exaggerated. It worries me that those of us who live firmly in the Digital World can’t imagine that there really are people who are excluded from that world by their circumstances. I can attest that they exist and they live within 60 miles of our nation’s capital. Here are a couple of examples.
Just last Saturday, I helped a young boy who needed to do a project on an animal. He wanted to do it on cheetahs. For many of us, if this was our child, we would sit them down at the computer and do an Internet search. If we’re a bit information savvy, we might try online databases or encyclopedias available through our library’s website. Our kids would print out pretty pictures on our color printers to decorate their poster. They would probably use a word processing program to print out headlines and text. This little boy’s mother borrowed three books from the library. Then they signed up to use a library computer to access a database we have just for kids. They printed out pictures on our low quality black and white printer. They do not have Internet access at home. The project was due on Monday. If, in the process of finishing it, the boy needed something more on Sunday, they were out of luck. The library is closed on Sunday because there’s just not enough money to keep it open all of the hours that people need it.This boy’s mother is doing her best to ensure he gets a good education. But I wonder how much of a disadvantage he will be at because he is on the wrong side of the Digital Divide.
The Digital Divide isn’t just about home Internet access. I helped a gentleman with his resume yesterday. He was about my age, maybe a little older. What he had of his resume had been done on a typewriter, except for a page of new information that was hand-written. He had never used a Word Processing program. He had no idea how to format things or even to print out what he typed. This was a capable, hard-working person who had never had the need to use a computer. What happens to people like that who need a job, but have never learned the skills to be able to fill out online applications or submit resumes via email? Who is going to help them learn the skills they need? In this case, the library was the solution. But if I had been busier, I wouldn’t have been able to spend that kind of time with him.
Libraries are a logical place to try to bridge the Digital Divide. But as libraries are torn, trying to serve those who want all of the newest digital services as well as those in danger of being left behind – all while fighting dwindling budgets. What’s the answer? I honestly don’t know. But if the Digital World comes to believe that the Digital Divide is mythical or an exaggeration, we will have created a permanent under class that has virtually no hope of succeeding in the modern world.