ALA Virtual Midwinter 2021

Digital Equity Means Stronger Communities – Learning at #alamw21

At this point in time, we could ask anyone walking down the street how technology has played a part in their lives and they would have an answer. Some of us would have a very difficult time getting through the day without glancing at our smartphones at least a couple times to check email, Twitter, etc. Some of us love new tech and have immediately pre-ordered or waited in long lines for the chance to purchase the next big thing to change our lives. Some of us don’t understand what the point of all these screens are and consider technology more of a nuisance than anything helpful. However, at some point, in this past year especially, we’ve had to use it. Whether it’s in order to work from home, to help our children learn from home, or to attend a family member’s virtual birthday party, you need at the very least a device and an internet connection.  

So what happens when one or both of these things are inaccessible? Libraries pride ourselves on offering basic needs so that the patrons in our communities can live their lives. Prior to shutdowns, many of our organizations offered such things as job search resources, housing information, early literacy programs, and homework help. All of these resources could be accessed by coming into the physical library or through online resources through your computer or device at home. For patrons without devices and/or stable internet connections when our physical locations shut down so did their access to the important information they needed.  

This was the topic of The Future of Digital Equity. While a couple of the panelists live and work in communities that have large rural areas and have been finding ways to work within them for years, the pandemic really introduced this to some of the rest of us, myself included. Living in cities my whole life, my first thought when someone doesn’t have a device or access to the internet is to go to the library. I personally have been in situations where my computer was getting older and the WiFi in my apartment building cut out every time a car drove by my window. At this time, I was finished with college, didn’t work from home, and the biggest problem that this caused was taking twice as long to watch a movie on Netflix while I waited for it to load every few minutes. I also had access to the library if I really needed to get something done quickly. All this to say, I survived and it wasn’t that big of a deal for me in my early twenties, but that is not the case for many of our patrons, especially children and young people who now find themselves relying so heavily on the need for access to technology to just continue their regular school assignments and be able to learn, grow, and thrive socially and emotionally.  

What can libraries do? Speaker Cindy Altick Aden reinforced the importance of knowing about and communicating to patrons about the various bills and programs instated by the government. On both federal and state levels, there are ways that the government is trying to help those who need it through free wireless hotspots and laptops, technology hubs around cities, among other programs. It is our duty as library professionals and members of the community to be knowledgeable on what is available even outside our own library system’s abilities and budgets. Additionally, advocating for the libraries and the work that we do translates into more equity in technology for our patrons. Bridging the technology divide that is often times a result of the socio-economic divide that continues to widen should be a main focus in library work. We can rethink the way we offer our services through things like widening our WiFi into the parking lot, so people can stay in their cars and use the internet or taking bookmobiles out with WiFi hotspots to check out, but it probably is not enough. What the library system is capable of with staff and budget can only go so far. It isn’t until we engage with the government and community leaders around us to ask for help and work together that we will really start working towards more equality among the people we serve. 

Please note that as a guest post, the views expressed here do not represent the official position of ALA or ALSC.

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