Responding to the Second Wave of the Digital Divide

May 7, 2014

Progress has been made in closing the digital divide between computer-based tools and infrastructure, but an equally debilitating digital divide in internet literacy affects the American public, according to “Responding to the Second Wave of the Digital Divide,” a briefing of local government, public-policy, and library experts held May 6 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

“It’s not only the ability to use the computer, to maybe use Google; it’s the ability to navigate very carefully and get to the right information,” American Library Association (ALA) President Barbara Stripling said. “[It’s] the ability to find evidence to support your conclusion, and make sure that what conclusions you’re drawing and the new understandings that you’re gaining, actually are based on credible, real, and accurate information. That’s what we mean by digital literacy skills. And that’s what we mean when we say there’s a second level digital divide.”

During his time at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) from 2009 to 2010, communications and technology policy consultant John B. Horrigan led the development of the broadband adoption and usage portion of the National Broadband Plan, which focused on getting more Americans online access. Today, his work centers on consumers’ adoption and use of information and communications technologies. Horrigan stated that while he was at the FCC, 63% of Americans had broadband access at home; that number has raised to 72%.

He said that the digital divide has declined by about 40% since 2009, from 83 million adults who didn’t have broadband access at home to 48 million adults today who don’t have any sort of advanced online access. Horrigan said the “real emerging issue” is digital readiness, which he said is the capacity for all users to engage with online resources with knowledge about service attributes and use of personal and household data in the various applications we use.

Horrigan conducted a national survey a year ago, and his research, which will be released in the coming weeks, shows that 29% of Americans have low digital readiness, 42% have moderate levels of digital readiness, and 29% have high levels of digital readiness. Horrigan’s suggestions on policy steps to promote digital readiness include: pivoting digital divide programs to address digital readiness; developing community tech champions for digital readiness, such as libraries; and engaging the philanthropic community in helping close these gaps via library investment.

Speaker Richard Reyes-Gavilan, executive director of D.C. Public Library (DCPL), has experience addressing the secondary divide. The former chief librarian of Brooklyn (N.Y.) Public Library, he detailed investing in the physical structure of that library and acclimating its staff to the current needs of patrons. He stated that he has been aware of this divide for quite some time, harking back to a Tufts University study he cited in applying for a $3.25 million grant from the Leon Levy Foundation. This grant financed the Shelby White and Leon Levy Information Commons at Brooklyn Public Library. DCPL opened its $3 million Digital Commons at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library this year.

“If the research for the digital skills divide has been around for years, why is there a renewed focus?” Reyes-Gavilan said. “I’d argue that it’s back on our radar because of this problem I’d like to call digital exclusivity. The world has lost its patience with those who cannot navigate the online world. And because those folks who cannot navigate the online world are typically uneducated, poor, or otherwise vulnerable, to many this group is really easy to overlook.”

Reyes-Gavilan described a world that has moved away from the labor intensive, but previously necessary, processes of providing information in multiple formats.“There’s nothing evil, there’s not a conspiracy around this,” he said. “It’s just so much easier for people to work in this exclusive online environment.”

To provide a more equal playing field in digital readiness, he recommended designing libraries in a way that increase educational opportunities. “The vast majority of public library facilities are really built for transactions and not transformation,” Reyes-Gavilan said. “What we need to do is design our libraries in a way to increase educational opportunities, to focus on human capital development.” He suggested that public libraries invest heavily in staff development, to better align their skills with those in demand from their patrons. Another idea was to revisit the job description of a librarian to incorporate the role of teaching. Financial support for marketing would also help.

Stripling had several recommendations to address the perils of digital readiness. She proposed an increase in school library funding, especially in terms of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) reauthorization on the federal level.

“What we need to do is to ensure that school librarians are included as an essential piece of ESEA reauthorization language,” Stripling said. “It is going to provide the kind of federal recognition and support that is going to strengthen school libraries across the country.”

She also proposed staffing all libraries with state-certified school librarians, who have been documented as a determining factor in students’ increased test scores, as well as personal and academic development. Stripling also stated that classroom teachers and librarians should collaborate more often to provide rigorous academic content complemented by critical thinking skills.

Clarence Anthony, executive director of the National League of Cities, the oldest and largest organization of municipal officials in the United States, noted the often unsung contributions that libraries provide to local municipalities.

“Libraries have always been a trusted center of lifelong learning in cities throughout America,” Anthony said. “And we’ve taken libraries for granted in a lot of ways because we’ve not told the many stories about the impact of libraries to the community.”

Citing his childhood visits to a mobile library in rural Florida, and his struggles as mayor of South Bay, Florida, to provide a library, Anthony provided ideas to cultivate digital readiness on a community level. He proposed using the media to showcase the value of libraries, and suggested creating advocates to defend libraries as cultivators of an educated populous, which leads to job creation through attracting companies and encouraging economic development. This will also require partnerships with local government and schools.

Finally, Anthony contended that library staff should work more to represent their communities, from a cultural standpoint. “People, like it or not, want to see themselves in the library,” he said.

Whether by community involvement, renewed infrastructure, or policy shifts, at the center of these proposals is the role of the librarian in reaching vulnerable populations that lack digital literacy.

“My experience is that the school library is the most powerful place for them,” President Stripling said. “Because they’ll have ready access throughout their academic careers. And the school librarian is the person empowered, who is responsible for training students, for educating students, and the development of those important critical thinking digital literacy skills.”


Photo: Michelle Meiklejohn,