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Digital Inequity Still Dividing

April 1, 2022

When I was in library school (so begins most stories of a librarian)…. when I was in library school one of the big topics we discussed in most every class was the digital divide. Those who had access to technology and those who did not. Back then, it was computers and dial up or maybe DSL. A lot has changed since then: smartphones and broadband arrived on the scene, and access to online resources has become even more essential for daily tasks. But, even with all the advances, the digital divide still a major issue that libraries are fighting in their communities. Like Cassandra we had been warning our local, state, and federal leaders that digital inequity is a serious problem, but it took a pandemic for many to sit up and take notice. It remains to be seen whether this awareness will lead to any lasting changes.

You might think that digital inequity is an issue more for public libraries than academic ones, but we still see the consequences of the digital divide with each group of incoming students. Especially schools who serve more rural or urban communities, or those who have a large commuter population. Libraries are often at the front lines trying to triage students’ struggles with technology: students may not be able to afford a computer so they still need our labs or to borrow one of our laptops. We may need to be open in the evenings/weekends just to provide a space for students to complete an assignment with a reliable internet connection. Beyond the divide in access to technology equipment, often we serve as “gurus” who unlock the secrets of the academic software students must use to complete their coursework. Students may not have used a learning management system before (Blackboard, Canvas, Moodle, etc) and don’t know how to submit an assignment. Or, they don’t know how to access their school email account to send their essay as an attachment to their professor. Unfortunately, these technology basics are rarely included in student orientations or first-year coursework. (The fallacy of a digital native is another topic for another blog post).

The latest issue of American Libraries is devoted to “Digital Equity” and highlights the work libraries did during the pandemic to support our communities and how libraries are leveraging this new attention to the digital divide to make lasting changes in their communities. With a nice bit of unplanned synergy, the Teaching and Learning Roundtable of the Pennsylvania Library Association has planned a Spring Workshop with the theme of “Equity and Technology.” Librarians and library staff from all types of libraries are invited to attend, and there will be spaces for them to listen and share and learn from each other. The workshop will be on May 23rd and will be in-person at the Pattee/Paterno Library at Penn State, University Park. It will be my first in-person workshop in a long time (2019?) so I am excited to engage face to face with my colleagues from throughout the state. Zoom and other video conferencing tech was a lifeline during the pandemic, but it brought with it its own “digital divide” and cannot replace the serendipity of in-person interactions. Hope to see you there!

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