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How public libraries can help bridge the digital divide - Oxford report

This article is published in collaboration with University of Oxford.
A row of books are seen at a public library.

A recent project has collected more than 1,000 surveys of library computer users and 19 interviews with staff and volunteers. Image: Unsplash/ Susan Q Yin

Sarah Whitebloom
Freelance Writer, Oxford University
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  • COVID-19 has highlighted the stark digital divide on both an international and national level.
  • A recent UK project collected more than 1,000 surveys of library computer users and 19 interviews with staff and volunteers.
  • It found that a large number of these people lacked access to key digital services at home, including access to a laptop or smartphone.

When Oxford academic Dr Kira Allmann began volunteering at a library, she did not imagine it would result in a report calling for urgent government support for libraries to address deep digital inequalities.

The digital transformation of government services and private services – as with banking – has left many of the most marginalised people in our communities behind

Dr Kira Allmann

Libraries on the Front Lines of the Digital Divide summarises findings from a project in Oxfordshire libraries, written by Dr Allmann with fellow university internet experts Dr Grant Blank and Annique Wong. But it has resonance far beyond the county boundary.

Dr Allmann explains, ‘The digital transformation of government services and private services – as with banking – has left many of the most marginalised people in our communities behind. People have not been able to access their basic rights, because of lack of digital skills and access.’

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Libraries provide important digital services. Image: Oxford University

The media anthropologist was one of around 80 volunteers providing free one-to-one digital assistance to library visitors, as part of a scheme to address the rising need for digital access and skills support.

Requests for digital help have varied widely, as the report reveals. Dr Allmann helped with everything from printing payslips to finding housing. She found herself showing people, with limited experience of the digital world, how to type a CV in Word or set up an email account.

‘I would painstakingly talk them through each keypress, translating slowly and carefully the visual vernacular of the digital world. (‘See that little square with a line sticking through it? That means 'compose a message'. Click on that...’)’

It was clear, libraries were providing an important service, and Dr Allmann felt she had a window into the day-to-day lived experience of digital exclusion.

Dr Allmann found herself showing people, with limited experience of the digital world, how to type a CV in Word or set up an email account

Sarah Whitebloom

‘It seemed like an important field site,’ she said. ‘I’m always thinking like an anthropologist; I can’t turn it off. And I thought there were things happening there that weren’t appearing in the literature on digital disadvantage.’

Dr Allmann spoke with library staff members and teamed up with Dr Blank, who leads the Oxford Internet Survey, to develop a Knowledge Exchange Seed Fund project to study the digital provision of the libraries. The goal was to help the libraries learn more about customers with digital needs and understand what digital need looks like.

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The project collected more than 1,000 surveys of library computer users and 19 interviews with staff and volunteers. It reviewed digital help booking records and session logs, and Dr Allmann and master’s student Annique Wong also observed and participated in digital help sessions.

Although there is an expectation everyone has access to the digital world, and everything from claiming benefits to booking vaccine appointments are done online, the team found many people are being excluded. Their key findings include:

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  • Nearly a third of library computer users (31.3%) don’t have a smartphone.
  • Three in ten library computer users (30%) had no computer at home.
  • Nearly a fifth of users (19%) had no internet connection at home.
  • Over half of library computer users (58%) have incomes of £20,000 or less.

Based on the findings, the summary report makes several policy recommendations:

  • Library staff’s digital skills should be enhanced, so staff are prepared for the high volume and complexity of digital help requests.
  • Funding should be increased and more volunteers recruited.
  • There should be a shift of focus for digital inclusion from skills to wellbeing, recognising that digital is just one aspect of a person’s social context
  • Community awareness should be increased, and outreach is needed, to make libraries more welcoming for people excluded from services.

COVID-19 has altered libraries as public spaces, and most of the research took place before the first lockdown. But the team maintains libraries are a vital intervention space when it comes to digital inclusion.

Dr Blank says, ‘Looking ahead we believe libraries can become the digital inclusion hubs of the future across the UK, bringing together social support and technological access under one roof.’

Looking ahead we believe libraries can become the digital inclusion hubs of the future across the UK, bringing together social support and technological access under one roof

Dr Grant Blank

Their report argues that libraries can help to identify digital need and connect people with device donation schemes or skills learning. Libraries can be spaces for digital literacy development. But joined up thinking is needed, alongside integration with other local services - as well as more staff and volunteer time.

While the pandemic has suspended some of the library service’s digital services, including digital helper volunteer support, the library service has still been playing a key role during by offering vital access to online services. This included access to free Wi-Fi and computer terminals.

The report focuses on digital access in Oxfordshire libraries, but there are lessons for libraries across the country.

‘Going online is not optional anymore,’ says Dr Allmann. ‘We hope this report will boost the profile of libraries in the digital inclusion conversation and convince local and national governments to invest further.’

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