Friday, April 02, 2010

The Digital Divide and Changing Roles of Public Libraries...

Traditionally, we all knew that libraries were places to get books. For many of us, it was a right of passage and as commonplace as apple pie for our parents to bring us to libraries from a very early age exactly for this purpose.

But libraries, these days, have been completely transformed. It wouldn't be hard to argue that books aren't even their primary purpose anymore. Instead, they now get most of their visitors as a result of having become community centers - offering classes and lectures on various topics, "renting" out CDs and DVDs, and, of course, providing free internet access.

Judy Breck of SmartMobs highlights a MacArthur Foundation SPOTLIGHT review which provides the following statistics on the role of public libraries being the primary source of internet access to 44% of people living below the poverty line...

  • While social networking was the most popular use of the internet at public libraries, education was a strong second—especially for young adults from low-income households: Among young adults age 14 to 24 in households below the federal poverty line, 61 percent used public library computers and the internet for educational purposes.

  • Young adults in general are the heaviest users of internet access at public libraries: Nearly half of all 14- to 18-year-olds (an estimated 11.8 million users) reported using a library computer during the last year, and 25 percent of that group did so at least once a week. Teenagers reported that one of the most common uses of library computers was to do homework.

  • More than 32 million visitors use library computers for a variety of educational activities, including searching for and applying to GED and graduate programs, completing online courses and tests, and applying for financial aid. More than half of library patrons who used library computers to seek financial aid received funding.

Certainly, these are enlightening and extremely promising figures. The Digital Divide among members of our society is a growing problem, but libraries are clearly doing their part to counteract it.

A question: If you were going to make a sizable donation to your local library, do you believe your money would have a more sizable impact by purchasing books or by installing a few more high-speed internet terminals?


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