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OITP goes global: sharing ideas across borders

Greetings! I am Margaret Kavaras, the new Google Policy Fellow working with the American Library Association (ALA), and a recent graduate of George Washington University. June 9th marked my first day at the ALA Office for Information Technology Policy (OITP), and already, I had the unique experience of attending a meeting with Polish librarians and directors. As part of the International Visitor Leadership Program initiative of the U.S. Department of State, 12 Polish library leaders came to ALA to learn about information and communication technology (ICT) skills development, advocacy strategies, e-government, and the future of libraries.

The program topic, Digital Skills–Competencies for the Future, included discussions on ALA’s efforts in educating policy makers on the library’s role in digital literacy, and gaining take-away points for scalable implementation. After hearing from Alan Inouye, director of OITP, Emily Sheketoff, executive director of the ALA Washington Office, and Jessica McGilvray, assistant director of the ALA Office of Government Relations, on topics ranging from engaging politicians with targeted interest issues to designing e-government toolkits, the discussion opened up to questions.

The issues and questions raised by the Polish librarians and administrators especially resonated with me, as at this time last year I was conducting field research in regionally similar Romania on the impact library-provided digital access can have on community development. Questions about increasing digital literacy and capacity for high-speed broadband access highlighted similarities in the issues libraries here and abroad face. The digital divide, in both the U.S. and Poland, broadly stems from three main factors: lack of affordable broadband options, limited access to technology, and lack of awareness in the value of learning digital skills.

To address the technical side of digital access, developing effective advocacy strategies to engage policy leaders can bridge the distance between legislation and citizen access to digital information. As Emily Sheketoff explained, an important part of U.S. advocacy depends on the deep connections libraries form with the communities they serve. Here, the public strongly advocates for libraries, and pushes back against budget cuts and reduction in services. Across the country, American libraries have joined a “coalition of libraries” to share resources and successful strategies. As Sheketoff described, strategies with demonstrated success in one place can often be widely applied and effective elsewhere.

Here, I was able to leverage some of my knowledge of libraries in Eastern and Central Europe, and learned that many of the same issues similarly impact both Polish and Romanian libraries. Around 30 percent of the Polish population uses public libraries, a much lower figure than the roughly 60 percent in America, though significantly higher than the 16 percent in Romania. While many of the challenges facing libraries (digital literacy, rural development, broadband access, funding) are present in both Europe and the U.S., there are also a few key differences.

Library infrastructure in Poland has not yet reached the same level as the U.S., and lower rates of use mean it is more difficult to mobilize or rely on the public for advocacy. Attracting more library users is a larger focus, and in my research I found that Romania had success in bringing more people into the library and online through innovative programs tailored to the community. One such program offered free blood pressure screenings at the library, and included demonstrations on how to research health information online. An important topic discussed was the second wave of digital literacy, not only providing users access to technology, but ensuring they have the knowledge and skills to use it confidently and successfully.

The main takeaway lessons for scalable implementation focused on:

  1. Increasing citizen engagement and support for libraries necessary to advocacy
  2. Communicating successful initiatives between libraries and creating librarian training toolkits that can be standardized and distributed widely
  3. Educating leaders on what the library does for the community
  4. Addressing the second wave of digital literacy…not just having access to new technology, but teaching patrons how to use it productively and effectively.

It is only my first week, but already I have found myself learning many new things and connecting ideas across a broad range of topics that affect citizen’s rights to information access and digital literacy. I am looking forward to many more thought-provoking experiences this summer, and becoming more engaged with the policies and strategies that we as libraries employ to fight for equal access to knowledge and education.

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Margaret Kavaras

Margaret Kavaras served as the 2014 Google Policy Fellow in the Washington Office.

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