One of a library’s principal roles is to serve as a gateway to public knowledge and information, so it comes as no surprise that libraries are key players in the Information Age. The Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition recently held a “Libraries as Digital Inclusion Champions” webinar to showcase how libraries nationwide drive digital inclusion efforts at the local, state, and national level.
Creating a Local Digital Inclusion Plan
Despite libraries’ role at the heart of digital inclusion, the stereotype of dusty bookshelves persists. Grier Carson, Indiana’s Putnam County Public Library’s (PCPL) Director, discussed how he aims to shift the view of the library from “relic to relevant.” “Our hope is that we form new associations in the minds of users as to what a library does and why it remains so vital to the community,” said Carson. Accordingly, Carson led his library, which serves 40,000 patrons in rural Indiana, to develop a concerted technology program.
To address the socioeconomic divide and lack of home Internet in Putnam County, the library decided to direct its efforts toward providing access to reliable and robust Internet as well as offering education that teaches patrons new technological skills.
The library ultimately decided to focus its efforts on low-income households, senior citizens, and students. “Our goal is for patrons to achieve technological self-reliance,” said Carson.
Among its innovative initiatives, PCPL created the following
- A technology help desk and workbench for people to learn how to fix their own devices
- A renovated children’s department that encourages interactive play with technology rather than just a set of rules
- Programs such as STEM Wednesdays and An Hour of Code.
While not always associated with digital inclusion, Carson said extending the library’s hours of operation was one of the most important changes the library made to promote digital inclusion.
While local libraries like PCPL offer their own digital inclusion efforts tailored to community needs, state libraries can supplement those efforts and provide additional resources. Amber Gregory, Arkansas State Library’s Coordinator of E-rate Services, explained the role of the state library as she walked through Arkansas’ statewide coding initiative.
Arkansas chose to focus on coding because of existing partnerships and resources and Gregory noted how Arkansas State Library drew heavily from the American Library Association’s (ALA) Libraries Ready to Code, Girls Who Code, and other national coding initiatives. The Arkansas Governor’s Office also fully supported the coding initiative and mandated that all K-12 public schools offer coding courses.
The Arkansas State Library put together three training courses for librarians to learn coding basics, share their experiences and best practices, and take home a “Coding in a Box” kit. “We can’t offer this training and then send the librarians home empty-handed,” said Gregory.
Each kit included robots, computational thinking games, coding books, and workbooks so that librarians could immediately begin coding projects.
Even though the initiative just started last November, there has already been a positive response. Warren Branch Library, which has a large homeschooled cohort, reports that whole families come into the library to access the coding lessons through their “Wired Homeschoolers” program. It has also fostered collaboration between local schools and libraries to align their coding efforts.
Gregory noted how Arkansas hopes this initiative encourages an interest in computer science, which could translate into a highly-trained workforce that could attract more high-paying tech jobs to the state.
Partnerships & Disaster Response
Stacey Aldrich, Hawaii State Librarian, reiterated the importance of partnerships in her presentation. “It turns into a win-win when everyone comes together to help the community,” Aldrich stated.
Partnerships are particularly valuable for rural libraries with limited staff capacity. Aldrich explained how one teacher could broadcast his lesson across all of Hawaii’s different islands as part of a partnership between the local school and library systems.
Providing a unique perspective on the matter, Aldrich also illustrated the central role libraries play in disaster response. When Hawaii faced extreme lava flow in 2014, the public libraries stayed open 24/7 to provide shelter as well as to provide people with the latest information, evacuation plans, and other critical information.
While most libraries do not have to deal with lava, they can serve as critical information hubs during any type of emergency response.
Whether providing a technology help desk, coding classes, or responding to disasters, connectivity is a core requirement for libraries’ digital inclusion efforts. “That connectivity piece is so essential for digital inclusion statewide,” said Gregory.
Carson also stressed the transformative power of a robust connection. PCPL initially had a 10 Mbps fiber line and two wireless access points. After performing a network assessment and infrastructure improvements, PCPL increased its bandwidth with ENA from 10 Mbps to 75 Mbps. In addition, PCPL adopted ENA Air for Wi-Fi management and added three additional access points. “That made a tremendous difference almost overnight,” Carson notes.
Broadband and technology infrastructure serve as the backbone for any robust digital inclusion effort. Moderator Lourdes Aceves, Senior Program Manager at Urban Libraries Council (ULC), explained how libraries can use ULC’s Edge toolkit to assess their current technology and plans for the future.
Aceves explained how measuring technology performance can prepare libraries to educate local policymakers and become more informed leaders. It provides the tools for libraries to lead digital inclusion efforts rather than just react to them.
SHLB strongly believes libraries need the technology infrastructure to lead their communities. SHLB has taken great strides in ensuring all libraries have the capacity they need to bring their communities into the Information Age by advocating for affordable, high-capacity broadband for libraries, schools, and health providers at the national level.
Consider joining the SHLB Coalition to receive additional insight into digital inclusion and lend your library’s voice to the national conversation.
The archived recording of SHLB’s Libraries as Digital Inclusion webinar is available to the public until February 22, 2018 at which point it will only be available to SHLB Members. SHLB thanks ENA for sponsoring its ongoing Grow2Gig+ webinar series.