Sunday, October 30, 2005

digital divide

When we talk about the digital divide, many people think we are talking about groups of people more likely to have access and people less likely to have access. The federal government has dissected that one in a report that most librarians would find interesting and should take a look at here. But in my experience there is also a digital divide among libraries.

I work in a low income community that makes a pitiful stab at providing Internet access. To serve a population of approximately 85,000, our main library offers only six computers with Internet access and Microsoft OS. There are 2 more computers at our small branch. All of these computers are courtesy of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. At the main library, there are an additional six computers reserved for research, with access to our subscription databases and some preselected free websites. We offer no remote access for our databases, partly because it is expensive but also because our patrons would largely be unable to take advantage of remote access. We also suffer a Mac divide and a Linux divide, but those are other issues.

A neighboring suburb, with a population of just over 50,000 people (and a decidedly different socioeconomic status) has 48 computers, 19 laptops connections, and wi-fi access. The paradox is, of course, that libraries in affluent areas where patrons are more likely to have computers and Internet access in the home are more likely to have ample computer workstations, wi-fi access, color printers, etc. available for their patrons to use. In other words, those patrons that need the least from their libraries are offered the most. And those that direly need the basics go begging.

Denise E. Agosto took a look at this issue in an article in Progressive Librarian entitled "The Digital Divide & Public Libraries: a first hand-view." Unfortunately, the article is only available by subscription, see citation here. She agrees with me about the disparity between libraries, asserting that "...the digital divide is more than just a question of fairness or convenience. With respect to public libraries, the digital divide means that the people who most need access are the least likely to be able to get it at their local public library." (p. 26) Of her own public library in an affluent suburb, she states: "There are almost always more public computers available than people who want to use them, partly because there are so many computers, but also because almost every member of the community has computer and Internet access at home. And at work. And at school." (p. 26)

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