The Next Digital Divide: Productive Access

Pat Ball

As summer approaches in many cities across the country, many public library computers, wireless networks and open spaces will be in high demand by adults and children. The wait for access to computers will be a little longer, wireless networks will slow at peak times of the day because of the volume of use.

The Digital Divide in its original definition made the distinction between those who could afford to buy a computer and those who could not, thereby creating a socially unequal society where those who had access were exposed to better opportunities in education, health, employment, government services and other basic empowering services.  Access to computers in libraries help close this gap tremendously. It was reported in “Opportunities for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at US Libraries,” that across the country basically all public libraries provided free access to a computer and more and more are providing wireless access as well.

The public has come to depend on libraries for free access to computers as well as other online opportunities across the nation and the expert help that comes with that access.  This expectation has created new service roles for libraries and librarians across the country.  As more information and services went online, and various formats of information, such as videos and films, required that we have more bandwidth, the war on the Digital Divide moved to the quality of the access. High speed broadband access became a basic asserted right.  The empowerment provided by high speed access could not be fully taken advantage of with slow access that bottlenecked the flow of information, thereby stalling the many advantages provided by full high-speed access.

It was reported recently in a New York Times article that the next divide is no longer access or the quality of the access, but productive access. Access alone is no longer a panacea. (“Wasting Time is New Digital Divide“).

The article asserts that in many disadvantaged communities around the country that wasting time is considered to be the new digital divide. No longer is access alone considered to be enough. One should be able to fully participate in a digital world through productive access and not just as a passive consumer of information and entertainment.

What is meant by productive access is yet to be defined. Once defined and resources targeted toward closing this gap, the term digital divide will continue to evolve into yet another concept of providing equal access to online information.  What form that evolution will take we do not know as of yet.

As we continue to grapple with concepts like digital literacy, digital divide and their evolution into more profound empowerment definitions that enable our citizens to fully engage in a digital world there are facts that cannot be ignored. According to a study “Opportunity for All: How American Public Benefits from Internet Access at US Libraries.”

  • An estimated 149 million American’s visited public libraries in 2010.
  • Nearly half of these visitors made use of library computers and wireless networks to access the Internet.
  • Library visits are highest among the working poor.
  • Thirty million people used library computers and internet access for employment or career purposes last year.
  • Sixty-eight percent of those users searched for a job and submitted an application online.
  • Forty-six percent of those who visited a library last year did so to work on their resumes.

Whatever our next digital challenge or divide whether it is, productive use of time or maybe perhaps making sure all of the many devices and gadgets that can be used to access online information can communicate with all of the various technologies within our various infrastructures, libraries have positioned themselves at the forefront of helping to close the gap.  There are 16,000 outlets in various communities throughout the country to help close the next digital gap whether its digital literacy or digital access. Libraries are equipped and ready to serve in the various new service roles that have come to them in the new digital age of information.

Pat Ball
Cobb County Public Library System

Marijke began at OITP in 2009 to support a grant project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation looking at broadband capacity in public libraries. She immediately became immersed in broadband adoption and E-rate issues and has not looked back. Marijke leads and coordinates all of ALA’s work on E-rate. She is also co-chair of the Edlinc Coalition, the primary coalition promoting E-rate policy for libraries and schools at the national level. In addition to E-rate, Marijke supports the Program on Networks focusing on broadband adoption issues for diverse populations. Marijke also serves as Program Director for OITP’s emerging portfolio on children, youth, and technology. Prior to coming to OITP, Marijke worked for several community organizations that focused on empowering at-risk populations, especially focusing on youth and pre-school children. She continues to have a strong inclination to find projects that address access to information barriers so everyone, regardless of circumstance, can access, apply, and benefit from information in any format. Marijke received her master’s degree in library science from Indiana University, Indianapolis.

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