Sunday, February 21, 2010

Libraries on the Front Lines of the Digital Divide

Link to February 17 St. Paul Pioneer Press column, "On the front lines of the digital divide" by Susan Nemitz, Ramsey County Library Director.

Excerpt: At 3 p.m. on a weekday in the Maplewood Library, teens begin to sweep through the building to access the public computers. When asked why they choose to use the library, they cite required group projects, the need to access specific software programs like PowerPoint, the competition among three siblings fighting over access to the sole computer at home, the dial-up modem access that fails to provide adequate bandwidth, and their desire to work in a safe and quiet after-school space.

Every day, librarians are called upon to support job-seekers who have no computer access, lack rudimentary computing skills, have little knowledge of how to conduct an online job search, and have had no experience submitting an online application. Most workforce programs are available from 8 am to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. Heavy demand has forced many public libraries to ration computer time to one hour per day per patron. And still they come.

Meantime, the surge in the number of seniors who depend on public-library computers represents a fascinating trend. They, along with our low income patrons, are least likely to have a home computer. As a group, seniors are the primary participants in our basic computing classes (Introduction to the Mouse, Internet Basics, and Introduction to E-mail). Last year the Ramsey County Library introduced computing to more than 1,000 learners but was not able to fully meet the demand for classes. As more governmental forms are available exclusively online, seniors often find processes like the Medicare Part D online enrollment to be simply baffling

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