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.