Moving the Needle

8 tips to advance digital inclusion right now—regardless of your library’s size or situation

March 1, 2022

Illustration: David Alvarado

Perhaps you’ve read about the new funding available for libraries to purchase laptops and hotspots, or you’re familiar with digital equity concepts but aren’t sure what they mean for your library. We talked with librarians and experts from the Public Library Association (PLA) and ALA’s Committee on Literacy about practical steps to take and critical questions to ask to help level the playing field when it comes to devices, access, and training—even if you don’t have a big budget or supportive infrastructure.

1: Look around

The first step is to take inventory of what digital programs, services, resources, and staffing already exist in your library and identify gaps and opportunities, says Larra Clark, deputy director of PLA and ALA’s Public Policy and Advocacy Office. “That’s the number one thing—where are you today? No matter who you are, no matter where you are, every library is providing assets that relate to digital equity,” she says. “It’s about understanding what you are doing with those assets and what’s available to share with other people.” From there, a needs assessment could take the form of a community survey, interviews with city and county leadership, or an examination of census data. Clark says: “It’s not just what the library has but what do people need?”

2: Sharpen your skills, a suite of tech training resources developed by PLA, provides a trusted foundation for guiding patrons through computer basics like using a keyboard and setting up an email account. “I’m a big believer in not reinventing the wheel,” says Gwenn Weaver, a retired consultant and former librarian who serves on ALA’s Committee on Literacy. “There’s a lot of money out there right now for broadband, there’s a lot of money out there for equipment and services; [libraries] need to think about the training.” Start with the tech skills checklist for library staff and tools and resources for trainers.

3: Expand access

TO DEVICES: Invest in hotspots and inexpensive laptops like Chromebooks to lend out to patrons, which many libraries have started doing during the pandemic. If you’re able to host in-person events, consider hosting a technology fair where patrons can try out different devices. Weaver urges managers to account for technology troubleshooting, maintenance costs, and staff training in their long-term planning.

TO LIBRARY FACILITIES: Leave your building’s Wi-Fi on at all times and consider adding outdoor access points and range extenders. PLA’s March 2020 survey of public libraries’ responses to COVID-19 found that 81% of public libraries were already doing this—which helped users access the internet when buildings closed at the outset of the pandemic.

IN COMMUNITIES: Turn your bookmobile or outreach vehicle into a mobile hotspot outfitted with tech tools and mobile services (like printing), and take the show on the road. Williamsburg (Va.) Regional Library did this with two of its vans, and library director Betsy Fowler said in an April 2020 PLA webinar that the approach had been effective: “We’ve been building a real usership as we get the word out in a variety of ways to the community.”

4: Navigate

Embrace the role of the librarian as digital navigator, a dedicated one-on-one consultant and
caseworker helping patrons with digital skills and devices. When Salt Lake City Public Library (SLCPL) launched a pilot digital navigator program in fall 2020 with a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, staffers overshot their service and engagement goals by reaching 585 individuals—more than the 450 users projected—and holding interactions for longer than expected. Shauna Edson, SLCPL’s technology and digital equity manager and coauthor of a toolkit for digital navigators, also reports that many patrons returned for more guidance after the initial consultation. Read more about the National Digital Inclusion Alliance’s digital navigator model.

5: Ask critical questions

The digital divide is never just digital—it reflects social patterns and structures, meaning that years of entrenched biases and flawed policies have contributed to an institutionalized lack of access to resources. ALA Executive Director Tracie D. Hall has called the systematic denial of equitable access to information, information services, and information retrieval methods “information redlining.” Look closely at where the need is in your community: What factors or forces have shaped it? How might your library target and tailor its outreach to meet it? How can the library design programs and services with rather than for marginalized groups?

6: Collaborate

The most successful digital equity programs include collaborations with community partners, whether it’s a school or university, a state agency or community organization providing a specific service, or a grant-making institution. When SLCPL launched its digital navigators pilot, for example, staffers identified a need for multilingual services in lower-income neighborhoods and approached local partners who could help meet that need. “Cultural competency, language, and communication were an essential component of the project,” Edson says, citing partnerships with Suazo Business Center, which serves minority entrepreneurs, and Catholic Community Services of Utah, which serves immigrants and refugees. She also recommends linking up with community coalitions or local chapters of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. Consider taking a role in starting an alliance if there is not one in your area.

7: Talk it up

Build a public awareness campaign around the library as a center for digital access and inclusion, where all patrons can get the skills and tools they need to take care of business online.

  • Distribute direct mailers, fliers, transit advertising, or whatever works in your community.
  • Pitch human interest stories and interviews with library staffers to local news outlets.
  • Promote services on social media and on your library’s website.
  • Keep your board and Friends group informed of digital equity efforts.
  • Add signage outside the building indicating what services are accessible remotely.

8: Evolve

The pandemic has highlighted the ways our digital needs can rapidly evolve, requiring different skills and support over time, Clark says. Remote learning, telehealth, virtual interviews, hybrid schedules, and other realities of conducting business for the past couple of years are likely here to stay in some form, and the library’s approach to digital equity must adjust to suit those shifting needs.

“In my mind, these questions about digital equity and digital literacy are really about lifelong learning,” Clark says. “We all know there’s going to be a new device, a new application. It’s a lifelong journey for all of us to stay on top of this.”


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