May 12, 2021

The Policy Gap


The following is an excerpt from Digital Literacy and Digital Inclusion: Information Policy and the Public Library (Rowman & Littlefield, Aug. All rights reserved.)

Federal policies in the United States rely on public libraries to promote digital literacy and digital inclusion. Yet, public libraries are predominantly excluded from the funding made available for digital literacy and digital inclusion, as well as from the decision-making processes.

Further exacerbating this disjunction, library budgets have been heavily reduced during the economic downturn, even though the use of libraries has skyrocketed. This situation places public libraries in the untenable situation of greater service demands, greater service expectations, and fewer resources by which to meet these demands and expectations.

There are no other cultural institutions prepared to serve the public in the digital literacy and digital inclusion capacities that public libraries do. As such, the change has to be in policy rather than practice, unless the federal government opts to abandon promoting digital literacy and digital inclusion.

Calling for change

There are several core changes that could help. The first is extremely straightforward: when demanding more of libraries to fulfill digital literacy and digital inclusion functions, do not reduce library funding. Libraries’ support from all levels of government needs to increase to a level that such services, training, and resources can be adequately provided.

Second, governments at all levels should consider geography, infrastructure, and history when making demands on libraries. A library system that has received specialized government grants (such as Broadband Technology Opportunities Program [BTOP] funding) is going to have a much greater chance of meeting the access needs of its patrons than one constrained by a less robust local telecommunication infrastructure and local and state policies that hinder better connections. A potential solution is improved coordination among local, state, and national governments on policy decisions relating to issues such as telecommunication support and equality of grant funding.

Third, policymaking related to the digital divide, digital literacy, and digital inclusion needs to bring public libraries into the discussions, designs, and decisions. Libraries will be best positioned to interject the needs of those with limited digital literacy and the goals that they need to achieve with technology into the policymaking process, a perspective that is often completely neglected.

Taking the lead

Engaging the politics related to digital inclusion is particularly important as there are still people, including some in positions of power, who do not believe digital literacy and digital inclusion are pressing issues. There are even some who believe digital inequality is not even a problem, arguing instead that people only do not participate online by choice. More commonly, many of the people who live in technological richness can easily forget that many people lack such richness.

Public libraries must make a stronger, more public case for the support they need to provide digital literacy and digital inclusion and their related services. A fear of direct engagement with the political process has long plagued public libraries, as a result of the belief held by many in the profession that librarians must be neutral and apolitical. While neutrality has many critics who have raised valid refutations of the notion, fear of political engagement continues to drive many of the actions of public libraries and public library organizations.

This neutrality stance, unfortunately, frequently places libraries in the position of having major political and policy decisions happen to them, their voice basically unheard and ignored. For example, the self-imposed voicelessness of libraries in the political process has made it much easier for governments to shift significant e-government and emergency response duties to public libraries in the past few years.

Without changes in policy in this area, public library roles in promoting digital literacy and digital inclusion will not be sustainable.

Library practice

While every library serves a unique community with individualized needs, some key ideas in approaching practices related to digital literacy and digital inclusion can help to frame the local approach developed in each library.

An important starting point is focusing on the reasons that members of the community seek help at the library for digital literacy. Lack of access is the primary reason for nonusage of the Internet across all age groups, while lack of skills is a greater barrier for adults than for youth. Such a lack of access and skills can be rooted in issues of geography, education, economics, culture, age, disability, and a number of other issues, each of which presents challenges. Programs and services to promote digital literacy and digital inclusion need to start from the basis of awareness of and sensitivity to the reasons for lack of digital literacy and the barriers to achieving it.

In promoting digital literacy and digital inclusion, it is also critical to create programs and services that are not one-size-fits-all. Family and personal attitudes and background heavily shape attitudes toward and interactions with technology. Literacies are social, diverse, numerous, and not necessarily related or overlapping, which means that achieving digital literacy will be a personal journey. Because digital literacy builds on other literacies, barriers and challenges with these other types of literacies may be present before digital literacy can even be considered.

The setting of the digital literacy instruction is also worth noting. Digital skills are most easily learned in informal settings. As initial interactions with the highest levels of technology usage are most likely outside of formal learning environments, creating environments that are welcoming rather than intimidating will promote learning and reduce anxiety.

Tying digital literacy to key skills that people need and goals they wish to fulfill will also help demonstrate the importance of achieving digital literacy. If digital literacy programs and services are linked to tasks that members of the community want and need to accomplish, such as submitting their taxes online or registering their children for school, digital literacy programs will have more context.

Building partnerships to support digital literacy and digital inclusion efforts will allow for more ambitious services and programs that have greater reach than the library might have on its own. Such partnerships also help to convey the message about library contributions to the community. Working in conjunction with other libraries in the system, state, or region will help to develop shared standards and practices that can link efforts in different places and create coherent larger-scale endeavors, as well as generate enhanced opportunities for teaching alliances, team teaching, and coplanning and development of services and programs, all of which are central to attempts to promote digital literacy in school settings.

Moving forward

A key step is for librarians to express more strongly the breadth and depth of their literacy and inclusion activities to politicians, policymakers, and the public. Libraries must advocate for themselves in a strong and coordinated voice with messages that use language and data that make sense to the people setting policy. Most people, even those who regularly use the library, do not know the full range of its services and local contributions. Public libraries will be more likely to make an impact by simultaneously communicating the value and contributions of the library through marketing (e.g., selling to the community) and advocating for policies that positively impact libraries (e.g., lobbying in the policy process).

These messages need to come from more voices than library directors and administrators. Empower all members of the staff to advocate and encourage coordinated advocacy by trustees, Friends of the library, patrons, library partners, community members and leaders, educators, and retired library personnel. These campaigns can include support for high-level residents, organized committees, speaker bureaus for community events, polling, public relations, focus on groups most likely to be supportive and engaged, guest editorials in local media, statements from local politicians, information tables in libraries, advertisements, and endorsements from colleges and universities, homeowner and condominium associations, celebrities, unions, and chambers of commerce. Social media and other new technologies will also be of great value.

Engaging policy and advocating for strength in these arenas may not be the most comfortable activity for librarians, but it is necessary. Public libraries are the de facto social guarantor of literacy and inclusion. With the public and government expecting libraries to fulfill these roles, libraries must in turn educate the public and government about the sponsorship libraries need in order to continue to guarantee access, literacy, and inclusion.

Kim M. Thompson is Lecturer, School of Information Studies, Charles Sturt University, Australia; Paul T. Jaeger is Associate Professor, Natalie Greene Taylor is Research Associate and Doctoral Candidate, Mega Subramaniam is Assistant Professor, and John Carlo Bertot is Professor, Information Policy and Access Center, College of Information Studies, University of Maryland, College Park