Public Libraries trying to bridge the technological digital divide in 2021
Many libraries in Mid and Northern Michigan have reopened to the public. However, the shutdown revealed how the digital divide is hurting some rural communities. Now, libraries are playing a role in bridging the gap.
The Cadillac Wexford Public Library reopened in early March. On the morning we visited, a couple of patrons were scattered inside the building. One was propped in front of one of the library’s desktop computers, headphones on, watching a movie.
It’s here at public libraries where the digital divide may be most visible.
“It's a huge issue, it's a huge issue,” said Tracy Logan-Walker, the director of the Cadillac Wexford Public Library.
“There are a lot of people, the matter is not that ‘I can't afford this,’ the matter is ‘it's not available to me in my location.’ So, they have to use secondary locations like the library to work on homework or apply for jobs,” said Logan-Walker.
Logan-Walker added that libraries can play a role in providing computers and internet access but that doesn’t fix the larger problem.
“We can do hot spots, we can offer community locations, we offer Wi-Fi, we have computers, but that doesn’t change the fact that people need access directly from their homes and what that means is lines in the ground,” said Logan-Walker.
Lines in the ground is something Eric Smith, the director of the Mason County District Library is exploring for his community. He’s a part of Connecting Mason County - a group working on providing better broadband access in the area. The group put out a survey which showed about 88 percent of those who participated have some form of high-speed internet access.
But that alone isn’t enough.
“It's not enough anymore to say does the person have nominal access to a device and a connection that counts as good enough,” said Smith.
Good enough is the ability to meet today’s robust online workplace needs which include capabilities for group virtual meetings, according to Smith.
During the shutdown, John Roberts, the director of the Kalkaska County Library saw people desperate for online access to do essential tasks like file for unemployment or run their small businesses. However, beyond access, lack of digital literacy skills is a big piece of the digital separation puzzle.
“You could be a really successful skilled craftsman and not have an email account - be totally unfamiliar with using a computer,” said Roberts.
That means teaching those digital literacy skills often falls on libraries.
“It's one of the most important things we do,” said Roberts.
That responsibility will likely continue until the digital divide is bridged.