The role of libraries in closing the digital divide for older people

Public libraries have an important role to play in getting older people online (image c/o splorp on Flickr).

Katherine Stephan is a Community Librarian in Norwich for Norfolk Library and Information Service.  During her maternity leave she is based in Liverpool.   She’s particularly interested in other public library projects that encourage older people to get online.  Here she explains the important role public libraries play in getting older people online.

In the recent (and ongoing) debate surrounding library cuts and closures, it is even more important to demonstrate how public libraries are providing a useful and needed service, sometimes beyond reading and literacy.  This can also be extended to the role of libraries in the digital divide, both with regards to providing computer and internet skills but also access to broadband.  My research project, “‘The Whole World is Stopping at WWW’ An analysis of how Norfolk Library and Information Services’ Surf’s Up can help close the digital divide amongst older people” hoped to discover how libraries might help bridge and possibly close the digital divide, particularly for older people.

Much digital divide research focuses on government policies or statistical data surrounding physical access to computers and the internet.  My thesis, as part of my MScEcon at Aberystwyth University, sought to understand and highlight the potential importance of public libraries in bridging the digital divide.  It particularly sought to gather qualitative data from people over 65, representing the voices of those often impacted by the lack of computer skills and the internet.

In 2010, Norfolk Library and Information Service (NLIS) was successful in securing a six-figure funding bid to run Surf’s Up, a series of computer skills courses for older people aged over 65, over a four year period. The course is run twice-yearly in all of Norfolk’s forty-seven branch libraries, and potentially more often if staffing and yearly underspend in funding allows. Participants meet for two hours a week for six weeks, led by a Community Librarian and an additional person, usually a library assistant.

As part of my research I held four focus groups in libraries of different sizes and locations: Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library, currently the busiest in the United Kingdom, North Walsham, a large market town, Aylsham, a smaller market town and Stalham, a small village. In addition to the focus groups, I gathered a small amount of biographical data and information on their computer skills via a short questionnaire.

Some main themes:

  1. It’s costly to gather and time-consuming to transcribe and analyse but qualitative data is an incredibly rich and valuable resource.  The same participants that said on a questionnaire that they felt confident being independent online would admit in a focus group that they really only felt ‘sure’ with the assistance of a family member or when at the course.
  2. Physical access to computers isn’t enough-so many participants have a skills deficit that is often not overcome by self-learning or via friends and family.  And this isn’t just a lack of skills in getting on the internet, for example.  Many users did not know how to use a mouse, or even the different between an email address and a web address.
  3. Twelve hours of tuition is incredibly useful and at times life-changing, but for every participant that took part, not enough to overcome all of the issues with confidence, questions of internet security and various other issues.
  4. Libraries are well-suited to run/host computer courses; they are generally open multiple days a week, they already have computers and internet access and they have trained staff.  But with library closures and opening hours cut, there is a real and profound skills gap that might not be addressed.  People that have missed out on sufficient or any computer training in their workplace or school will have limited opportunities to get free help.  Although campaigns like Go On Online are earnest and useful at times, dependence on volunteers or young people helping on an ad hoc basis will not solve this problem.  Moreover, most libraries provide access to broadband in areas where this is not widely available or the cost is prohibitive.  As a recent article in the Guardian suggests, broadband access in the United Kingdom is not as pervasive as many think.
  5. There is so much more to learn and do.  Surf’s Up is just one small programme in one library service.  I found the participants candid and happy to express their joys and frustrations with learning, we just needed to have a forum in which they felt comfortable sharing.

When people bemoan about the prevalence and relevance of computers in libraries, they forget that providing both computer skills and computer and internet access for library users is part of (to me) the general ethos of libraries: reading and learning for everyone.  The skills gained in a course like Surf’s Up run the whole gamut of fantastic outcomes: from being able to use a mouse, write an email, independence when someone is housebound, getting to watch EastEnders back on the iplayer, or a widower who finally feels enabled to do her banking online.  These all happened with the power of the internet. And they all happened because of public libraries.