For most of recorded history, libraries were places where people could get access to information, expand their knowledge, and record important historic information.
The oldest library in operation today, Al-Qarawiyyin in Morroco, has kept its doors open since 859. In the 15th century, after the invention of the printing press, information began reaching even more people. At the time when recorded information was scarce, libraries were a central meeting point for intellectuals and scholars.
Today, the role of libraries in the internet age has expanded beyond the manuscript collections they maintain. Libraries can provide the access and skills needed to navigate the digital world, bridging the gap between information and access.
Access is still an issue in the United States, where nearly a 23% of Americans don’t have the internet at home, according to a report on computer use by the U.S. Census Bureau. According to the graphic below, income is the largest determinant of whether or not someone has access, and age is the second one.
But the digital divide is more than an access problem. There is a skills gap that spans generational and socioeconomic demographics. As technology gets more sophisticated, learning how to use it becomes more challenging.
Mary Stansbury, lead faculty member of the online master of library and information science program from University of Denver’s Morgridge College of Education, said the gap exists even on the physical level. How do you use a mouse and keyboard? How do you interact with voice recognition or a touch screen? How do you turn a computer on or off?
And once you do that, Stansbury said, “How does one figure out what I’m looking for?”
The skills gap is more apparent between generations. Older people who spent the majority of their lives without the internet didn’t grow up with the skills needed to access and use it.
Traditionally, libraries were thought of as information storehouses, that shifted during the Industrial Revolution, when libraries served as hubs for skills-driven education.
Another example of that continuing adaptability, Stansbury said, was when libraries provided digital access during the “very first years of widely geographically available internet.”
A big part of that push came with an amendment to the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that allowed libraries and schools to adopt the internet at a heavily discounted rate, especially in low-income areas.
In places like Gilpin County, Colorado, internet access is not efficient at all, people use the Gilpin County Public Library today: 54% of visitors come in to use one of the library’s computers. Compared to libraries in urban or suburban areas, rural libraries receive more people per capita, and more of them are using a computer. Libraries in large cities tend to have fewer visitors per capita, but more computer users than libraries in suburban areas.
Income can determine whether a community needs to rely on the library for internet access. But why are city patrons using library computers at such a higher rate?
Bo Kinney, circulation services manager at the Seattle Public Library, suspects it might be because of rising income inequality in cities. “Seattle as a whole is a very wealthy city, but there is this shrinking middle class,” Kinney said, “and a growing number of really poor people as well.”
The Seattle Public Library is addressing what Kinney describes as a “moving target” of the digital divide by providing services specifically to certain low-income groups. It allows visitors to check out mobile internet hot spots the same way they’d check out a book.
The library is bridging the digital divide without sacrificing what it has done since opening in 1890. “None of the traditional library services have gone away or even declined in any significant amount,” Kinney said.
Author: The online Master of Library and Information Science from University of Denver’s Morgridge College of Education