Two major events occurred in 1989 – the first was the historic dismantling of the Berlin Wall; the second, the invention of the World Wide Web, was little recognized at the time, beyond a few scientific and technical researchers. However, like a rock thrown in a stream, the ripples of this event have flowed through society and transformed the way people live. Even those who sensed the importance of the Web failed to anticipate the economic and social change that would ensue.
The concept of a digital divide gained headway in the mid-to-late 1990s. Much was made of the need to be connected to remain relevant. It was evident that it would become increasingly necessary for people to make the leap across the divide in order to succeed. It was generally accepted that overcoming this threat depended on access to a computing device. Today, it is recognized that the computing device is only a small part of the context in which people can successfully integrate technology into their lives.
For the past year, researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University have been examining present day digital divide issues. According to Nancy Stutts, one of the co-authors of the study, “…the digital divide will increase as more activities – such as filling out job applications, paying bills or checking bank balances – migrate online.” She concludes that “everyday life depends on knowing how to use the Internet.”1 Initially, while the digital divide meant not having a computer, today the focus has shifted towards a broader context – one of computer literacy. Study co-author Liana Kleeman, observed: “Those who are hardest hit, both by lack of access and skill, fall along lines of income, race, ethnicity, education levels and age.”
In 2001, the Mathews Memorial Library, along with other libraries, acquired its first “public” computers through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Providing this access filled an essential gap for rural communities where the divide was most prevalent. With the move into the renovated library in 2002, additional computers were purchased and placed in the adult area and, through a grant from Verizon, in the youth wing as well. The use of such computers was enhanced by the accessibility to a higher speed network than generally available elsewhere in the County.
In 2005, the decision was made to launch a series of computer training programs, which were created in cooperation with Techriders, a non-profit organization and developer of the program, “Train the Trainers.” Classes were held offered on a regular basis to individuals interested in enhancing their ability to use computers effectively. The first course offered was a basic course taught by staff members, Carol McCormack and Greg Lewis. Over the next few years, additional courses were added, focusing on the use of the Internet and e-mail. The ability to reach more students was facilitated by another Gates grant which provided for the purchase of 15 additional laptops with the condition that we agree to travel to other communities in the Middle Peninsula where the workshops could also be made available. This network of service continues to the present. In addition, in 2011, the menu of workshops was expanded under the umbrella of a program entitled “Techstew.” This latest addition further broadens the computer literacy of individuals who participate, introducing them to such topics as social networking, information on the Web and e-commerce (eBay and PayPal).
The Career Connect Center (C3) relies heavily on the availability of the library’s computer classes in assisting individuals in upgrading their computer skills, thus increasing their opportunities for employment. Access is also critical in learning of jobs and communicating with potential employers.
In spite of the progress made by libraries in the last fifteen years in addressing both computer access and literacy, emerging consumer focused tools and services such as e-books, are generally beyond the scope of library services. While perhaps not as essential as other computer linked services, they are content based and increasingly in high public demand. The reason for this new “divide” is primarily because libraries and publishers haven’t yet figured out how to create an e-content model that works in libraries. There are big problems still to be solved to ensure that the digital divide does not impair the quality of life in our community. The library is pleased to be a part of the solution.
1 DeVasher, Bryan. “Meeting to explore Richmond’s ‘digital divide.’ Richmond, Virginia, Richmond Times Dispatch, Tuesday, June 28, 2011, p. B1.