New Americans and the Digital Literacy Gap

How libraries are helping immigrants bridge the divide

November 27, 2012

While major urban centers like New York, Miami, and Los Angeles have always drawn new immigrants, there are many pockets of new Americans now living in mid-size US cities due to job opportunities and proximity to families and former neighbors from their homes abroad. Some come to the US without significant digital literacy skills, and local libraries take up the challenge to help them meet their online needs. Here are two library systems, one in Idaho and one in Minnesota, that have found innovative ways to provide resources to these unique groups.

Idaho’s “Train the Trainer” program

Boise and Twin Falls may not seem like major cities for immigrants but both have speakers of Hindi, Karen, Russian, and other foreign languages who need digital literacy skills. The Idaho Commission for Libraries, in partnership with the Idaho Office for Refugees, developed a program that trains foreign language speakers to, in turn, teach digital literacy to others in their language groups.

With an “Online @ your library” project grant (funded by a Broadband Technology Opportunities Program of the US Department of Commerce), commission staff trained 12 new Americans to use library tools to transfer digital literacy skills to others. The trainers now offer workshops and one-on-one coaching sessions in library facilities and in their communities using library resources. “Individuals are getting the skills they need to apply for jobs, find information for their families, help their kids with school, and live in our 21st-century America, where technology know-how is very important,” said Gina Persichini, consultant for the Idaho Commission for Libraries.

Over a series of three afternoons, these 12 trainers learned about library resources and other online tools needed to help the refugee community. Commission staff pulled together a collection of digital literacy tools available through Idaho’s statewide database program (, the “Online @ your library” project, and other free online resources. The tools were organized into digital literacy guides addressing the following: finding a job, education, family and health information, access to e-government services, using a computer, and using the internet.

Staff spent only three months to clarify goals, develop the guides, find trainers, and deliver the sessions. Partners set out with the modest goals of teaching 200 individuals over six months. Just three months into training, the refugee trainers had exceeded all expectations. In that time, 212 coaching and training sessions were held, reaching 914 refugees in Boise and Twin Falls.

Trainers have been using public libraries to introduce trainees to public computers, library materials, and wireless internet. In some cases, the trainers have been reserving meeting rooms and laptop computer labs for training sessions.

Persichini said she hoped that those being coached will learn about the library as a place for online connectivity. She set a target of just 25% of the coaching sessions taking place in libraries (some were expected take place in venues such as coffee shops.) Not only did trainers far exceed the number of individuals trained, but they also used a public library for 71% of those sessions. “We hoped that our project would highlight libraries, and were pleasantly surprised by its immediate success,” she said.

Minnesota library reaches out

Two Somali refugees, an uncle in his 60s and a nephew in his early 20s, started learning English together at Franklin Learning Center (FLC) in Minneapolis, a part of the Hennepin County Library system. The uncle had never used a computer before. After English class one day, he watched his nephew using a social networking site at the Franklin branch and decided that he’d like to learn how to use a computer too. Staff members helped him practice basic mouse and keyboarding skills, and soon the uncle was exploring online on his own.

Another FLC patron, a 69-year-old Jamaican immigrant, lost his job during the summer. He hadn’t used a computer much but needed to learn in order to access unemployment benefits and apply for jobs online. “It was great to see him grow with his skills,” said Nancy Thornbury, coordinator for FLC. She said they first practiced setting up his account and how to get in and out of it; then she reminded him to sign out. “Very quickly he was doing this on his own,” she said. “It paid off, because he found a new job.”

The Franklin branch has a nearly 100-year history of reaching out to new Americans. When it opened in 1914, one-third of the library’s collection was in Norwegian, Swedish, Yiddish, and other foreign languages. The FLC opened in 1988 primarily to assist US-born adults in preparing for the GED test. Today it primarily serves those seeking to learn English, many of whom are from Somalia. The GED remains part of the teaching mission, though—especially after it was announced that, beginning in 2014, GED tests will be given only by computer.

Gretchen Wronka, the multicultural services and digital literacy librarian at Hennepin County Library, said she recruits library volunteers from the local refugee communities to help bridge cultural and digital gaps. “We see people who don’t have the most basic digital literacy skills, like how to use the mouse,” said Wronka. She quoted a 2012 City of Minneapolis Community Technology survey of 8,000 Minneapolis-area residents, which found in low-income areas—and immigrant community neighborhoods in particular—the technology disparity “was horrific. We have a huge, huge digital literacy gap in the community.”

Hennepin County’s three full-time staff outreach liaisons work within immigrant groups to assess needs, recruit volunteers, and monitor progress. Chaleng Lee works with Hmong immigrants from China, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. Spoken in several dialects, Hmong was almost exclusively an oral language until the 1950s, which adds to this community’s digital literacy challenges. “The computer is so new [to most Hmong people],” Lee said. “The pace of learning within an immigrant-centered computer class is different from one geared to the mainstream,” he added, noting that classes need to have the flexibility to adapt to each learning level.

To help promote the library as a key resource for Hmong families as they help prepare their children for school as well as after they are enrolled, Lee attends school parent meetings and other community events, soliciting input from local residents about their library needs. He also represents the library on several statewide advisory committees working on collaborative projects that affect Asians and Pacific Islanders. “We do a lot of community partnering,” he said.

The success of the program has circled back to the library itself. One liaison was recently promoted into a library system position and will be helping make policy and work with all populations in Hennepin County.