things i heard at the library: digital divide edition (#20)

In library school we talked a lot about the digital divide, the ever-increasing gap between those who have access to information and communication technology, and those who do not. Public libraries are one of the very few institutions that exist to bridge that gap, however imperfectly.

What does the digital divide look like on the ground? In my library, located in one of the lowest-income communities in Ontario (and in Canada), we see the digital divide in action every single day.

This week a family worked on a visa application for the United States. They had to come to the library first thing in the morning, so we could special-book them a computer, as the process would take much longer than a standard computer reservation. With intermittent staff help, they worked on their application for three hours. There was no way to download and save the application, and no paper version. When they tried to save and submit the application, either the computer or the site malfunctioned (we don't know which) and they lost all their work.

Two days ago I helped a couple, two refugee claimants, access their application for legal residency in Canada. Prior to arriving in Canada, they had no computer experience at all. Their application is only available online. I was able to offer one-on-one help for 30 minutes - very unusual, and the only reason they were able to accomplish what they needed.

Yesterday a girl asked for my help saving her homework and emailing it to herself. She waited patiently for help, while the time on her computer reservation ticked down. She did not have a USB stick. As I helped her save her work, her computer time ended. Our public computers wipe out all customer information with each login. Her homework was lost.

Lost homework is a daily occurrence. Almost all homework is accessed and completed online. Teachers are supposed to "confirm that students have access to the technology required for the homework assignment". Having a library card is considered adequate access.

Much frustration and heartbreak could be avoided if families invested in a few USB storage sticks and gave each child her own. But parents have no idea this is needed. We can't speak to the parents about this because they're not in the library. They are either at work or home with younger children. Their older children ask to use our reference-desk phone to call home when they need a ride.

Another daily occurrence: children who cannot find an available computer on which to do their homework. Our library has 22 public-use computers. We could double or triple that number and they would all be in use every hour of every day.


Rural said...

The assumption by school boards and teachers that kids all have access to a computer is very troubling and when you consider that even those with a library card who live out of town effectively have zero chance of completing assignments requiring such access. This is a real example of the digital divide. Even those in rural areas who do have a computer may not have reliable internet access and certainly not unlimited high speed. The internet is a great source of access to information but there are still far to many who are unable to use it to any extent.

johngoldfine said...

That schools and teachers feel the need to assign homework at all is an indictment of their methods and philosophy. In my rural district students spend 7 hours a day in school and often an hour a day in a bus--each way--getting to and from school. Seven hours ought to be enough time for an education and nine hours is enough of a bite out of a child's day and life.

And in our rural district, a huge part of school, all subterranean, is making social class distinctions:clothes, accents, school lunches, vacation destinations, size of families, family cars, and so on are all markers teachers use to categorize their students.

Also computers.

Any child without a snappy, up-to-date, whiz-fast computer and internet hookup at home will be blamed and shamed, and the teacher will feel proud that she has "standards" and is trying to get the lowlife parents to stop wasting their welfare money on booze and drugs and to do right by their kid.

One kid comes in with homework neatly printed out and is made much of. The other does not and is tagged in that self-fulfilling prophecy teachers are so enamored of as a loser or a doesn't-care or poor-background.

laura k said...

John, I agree completely.

In my old library, the kids were completely over-scheduled, over-managed, competitive, and pressured - these the first-generation Canadian children of well-off immigrant parents. All up to the minute technology, clothes, musical tastes, etc.

In my current location, only 25 kms away, kids walk from school to the library, where they spend long, boring afternoons either playing games on our computers, or studying, waiting for someone to pick them up. They don't have phones, laptops, or any other tech gadgets. And now, insult to injury, they can't even get their homework done.

laura k said...

I'm aware of a million class distinctions at play here, much of it in a code I don't understand, as it involves minutae of South Asian accents, degrees of assimilation, micro-degrees of ethnicity and origin, and the like.

Once upon a time, Irish immigrants were all thought of as Irish (and of course dirty, lazy papists), but the immigrants themselves knew who was County Kerry and who County Cork. This is the same thing, substituting Indian and Pakistani states, and different sides of the same Caribbean islands.

It is maddening to see such poverty in our very wealthy region.

impudent strumpet said...

Three thoughts, not linear to each other.

1. I've been pondering writing a blog post theorizing that homework is intrinsically inequitable, and for greater equity all work should have to be done under the same conditions, with the same tools and same (if any) adult assistance. I got As in math not because I'm smart, but because my mother is a math teacher. (And, despite my belief that this is a cause of inequity, I still intend to pay it forward by giving my fairy goddaughter the full benefit of my expertise in French class.) When you see news articles about high school students with winning science fair projects, they clearly have access to adult laboratories and/or equipment - I mean, you can't just build a robot or make progress towards isolating a cancer gene with stuff that's lying around the house! It's far easier to do music theory when you have a piano in the house. It's far easier to turn in a good essay if you have people on hand who know how to edit.

2. As a very mild example of what John Goldfine is describing about teachers' attitudes towards students' computer availability at home: when I was in Grade 7 (1992ish), some of my classmates started having computer setups at home that allowed them to use different fonts, clip art, print things with laser printers, etc. We didn't have this at home - not because of poverty or disadvantage, but simply because our most recent computer (circa 1988, with WordPerfect 5.1 and a dot matrix printer) was still doing perfectly fine and meeting everyone's needs. So one day I asked my teacher why my report, all neatly typed up and in a tidy folder, didn't get full marks for presentation, and he cited the example of some of my classmates who, in his words, "made the effort" to use more attractive lettering (i.e. fonts, wordart) and pictures (i.e. clipart). My teacher seemed to think that this was a function of effort and expertise, when in fact it was just a function of the kind of computer program your parents had bought. (I wasn't worldly enough to contradict him - I thought my classmates' computer skills had far outclassed mine, and was very frustrated that I couldn't figure out how to get WordPerfect 5.1 to make pictures.) In retrospect, I can't believe a grown adult didn't recognize this - that would be like thinking I hacked a celebrity's phone just because I @mentioned them on twitter and my tweet appeared in their feed!

3. I'm trying (and failing) to brainstorm ways to get these poor kids USB keys! Can the library figure out a way to lend them out, maybe for a whole semester? (The Toronto library lends pedometers - surely USB keys aren't much weirder than pedometers!) Do you have some kind of school-library liaison who can point out this gap to the schools? Do the schools give students some kind of swag at the beginning of the year? My high school would give us a planner and maybe a pen and some other stuff I forgot. Could they include a USB key in there? Could the school put it on the list of required/suggested school supplies? Could the library tweak the technology so people's work isn't really lost if their computer time runs out? Could there be a shared drive that everyone can use and maybe is emptied at the end of the day? It's such a frustratingly stupid problem that now I'm frustrated at not being able to solve it sitting here in my pyjamas unaffiliated with the situation!

laura k said...

Re #2, I'd like to slap that stupid teacher upside his head.

#3 is an ongoing discussion at the library, with no clear solution yet. Mississauga Library also lends pedometers, but USBs are not a similar item, as information is stored on them and we have all kinds of rules about customer privacy.

Also add to this that neither schools nor libraries have ANY money. It's almost a given that USBs would have to be sponsored by a corporation. Which (my loathing of corporate branding aside) would be fine, but both school boards and City governments have very strict and complicated rules about sponsorship, which takes place on a very high level.

Right now we are still in the stage of telling parents and teachers about this issue. That alone is going to take a very very long time.

Libraries and school boards are slow-moving beasts. It can be very frustrating. Unfortunately one of the most common ways of dealing with that frustration is to stop trying. Leaving those of us who continue to try without a lot of help.

laura k said...


Strange that that writer would wonder if D'Souza coined the phrase. In the late 19070s and early 1980s, the term "politically correct" was used by people on the progressive cutting edge. It was a positive term that meant the greatest inclusivity possible. I remember a guy I know, a prototypical hippie type, trying to word an ad for a housemate in a way that was gender-neutral and inclusive of gay people, which in that era was very unusual, if not unheard of. He said he was striving for his ad to be "politically correct". He meant this straightforwardly, non-ironically, and not pejoratively at all.

John F said...

What would be the minimum size of USB drive you'd need? How much red tape would you have to cut through to start a donation drive?

There have to be a LOT of older, smaller-capacity drives sitting unused in desk drawers out there. They are handed out like candy at tech conferences and trade shows. Assuming that the average piece of homework is a text file, even a small drive could hold a lot.

John F said...

Another thought: would free cloud storage be an option? That way, your patrons wouldn't need to worry about losing the key. They just need to remember a single username and password.

laura k said...

Cloud storage should help. But - as strange as this might seem - successfully using cloud storage involves quite a bit of ease with computer use. It's full of what we call "hidden competencies", knowledge that *digital haves* have acquired by daily use, and don't give a second thought to, but *digital have-nots* find bewildering.

In other words, you have to know so many things in order to accomplish a taks. But most people who know how to accomplish that task don't think twice about it. We learned easily because we have a mountain of computer use, day after day. But people who use computers for an hour per day, at best, may know some things, but they don't have the same ease of use.

We see this all the time at the library. Opening an email account now requires *another* email account. What if you're a first-time emailer? Sending a code by text to a mobile phone, another show-stopper. Finding files once they're saved, another biggie.

I question whether most of our customers could get comfortable with cloud storage.

Maybe I should blog about this hidden competency thing.

laura k said...

After posting my last comment, I took care of some personal business, and used another hidden competency that baffles many of our customers: how to save something when you don't see a file->save menu. Right-clicking and the context-dependent icons that appear in the lower left corner are literally invisible to anyone who doesn't know those potential solutions exist.

DavidHeap said...

A number of points here resonate for me, including the myriad distinctions and barriers.
I was also thinking along the lines of John F's initial suggestion of donated USB drives. A colleague of ours has (or had) a basket of freebie USBs on her desk to give to students when they needed to take documents with them. Could crowd-funded / donated drives get around the whole corporate sponsorship roadblock? I wonder if e.g. your colleagues would donate old ones they have kicking around in drawers, or if your union local could seed it with enough initial funds for a big box low-cost generic, USBs? (or even CUPE-sponsored-branded ones... a different sort of roadblock, I imagine). Would need a prominent sign ("Ask us if you need to save your work") and librarian would probably still have to dole them out somehow ("actually, our list shows that you already got a free USB drive last week, sorry.") but perhaps they are not *so* valuable or desirable that kids would go to great lengths to scam more than they need.
If these were donated USB drives, there might be a volunteer task to wipe them clean before redistribution. Speaking of volunteers, I am very aware of the "hidden competencies" thing, but it makes me wonder: could slightly older (or more tech-savvy) kids be convinced to hold min-workshops to train their (nearly-) peers how to open that first e-mail account, how to store files to a cloud etc.? Sort of an each-one-teach-some scenario...

laura k said...

We also have a whole bunch of USBs that customers have left in the library. Something to throw in the mix.

There is a library program we call Computer Buddies, where a teen volunteer earns volunteer hours (needed in Ontario to graduate high school) to work with an older adult to teach basic computer skills. It was a big thorn in the side of our union for a while, as some branches tried to use it to replace a staff-led computer learning program. We've got it limited now. But it is strictly a teen-to-senior program. I wonder if a similar peer-to-peer program might be embarrassing for the learner. (We are doing a peer-to-peer coding program, but those are more advanced skills.)

Thanks for these ideas, everyone. I am going to pursue this. Our bureaucratic library is a slow-moving beast, change happens slowly, but it does happen.

laura k said...

Oh yeah, I wanted to answer this.

Could the library tweak the technology so people's work isn't really lost if their computer time runs out?

Definitely not.

Could there be a shared drive that everyone can use and maybe is emptied at the end of the day?


These might be workable solutions in a smaller library system with fewer locations and fewer computers, and possibly a city government less obsessed with controlling its computer network, if such a place exists.

Network storage is a no-go, and cloud storage is IMO too difficult. I think the solution to this has to be USB storage.

I'm going to gather all the ideas from this thread and put together a proposal.

impudent strumpet said...

Jumping off the idea of cloud storage, what if they used Google Docs rather than using Word? If they did that, everything would be saved to the cloud without any diligence on their part, and they could retrieve it from any computer. (Possibly any device with internet access? I've never tried it on mobile.) It's also compatible with MS Office, so you should be able to switch back and forth and email the work as a doc file.

The major disadvantage is that the work then isn't available offline - you must necessarily have internet access to get it. I don't know whether this clientele is ever in a situation where they have a computer but not internet.

John F said...

Laura - Regarding my cloud storage suggestion, thank you for your thoughtful (and educational!) response. I think I just demonstrated the digital divide with my assumption.

In my case, the divide is even steeper, as I am in IT. I spend the majority of every working day on a computer, and have done so for almost 20 years.

Please keep us updated on the progress of your proposal.

laura k said...

Re using Google Docs instead of Word, if the customer can deal with cloud storage, then I would think they could deal with Google Docs. So in general that is going to be difficult for many of our customers.

Note to self: blog about hidden competencies.