Libraries Need to Build Bridges Over the Digital Divide
By Tim Longo, Technical Services Manager
The digital divide in Evanston is reflective of the divide experienced across the country. It is well known that lower-income families continue to lag higher-income counterparts in internet and computer access. At the Evanston Public Library, we are constantly exploring the frontiers of what equitable access to resources means for Evanstonians. We believe libraries need to build bridges over the digital divide.
In some ways, things have improved. According to a 2017 Common Sense Media study, the gap in home computer access for families of kids aged zero to eight is 25 percentage points (down from 37 percent in 2013), while the gap in high-speed internet access at home is 24 percentage points (down from 40 percent in 2013). The gap has narrowed. (https://www.commonsensemedia.org/sites/default/files/uploads/research/0-8_executivesummary_release_final_1.pdf)
But a narrowed gap isn’t a closed gap, and the divide in internet accessibility is still apparent. A digital literacy survey conducted by the Evanston Public Library (EPL) in 2016 revealed that about 14 percent of Evanston residents report that they have no Wi-Fi in their home. While 91 percent of people living below the poverty line have at least some internet access, it is often through mobile devices like smartphones. With just a mobile device, it is more difficult to apply for loans, check medical records, apply for jobs and help kids with homework, among other tasks that have shifted largely online in recent years. (http://www.joanganzcooneycenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/jgcc_opportunityforall.pdf)
Too many families need to locate free or low-cost internet to get access without heading to a public space like the library. That means setting up shop in a McDonald’s or a Starbucks. Therefore, the EPL is bringing the internet to the people.
Through a program started in 2016, the EPL loans 100 wi-fi hot spots to Evanstonians for using in the location they choose, at home or on-the-go. Originally only available at the main library, 80 are now available at all EPL locations to make borrowing easier for all Evanston residents. As part of a pilot with Evanston Township High School (ETHS), 15 are available for high school students to check out. Another five are loaned through a program with Lincoln Elementary.
Since the program started, we have loaned hot spots approximately 1200 times. The wait list is longer than we would like, but doing nothing to improve access is not an option. As we plan to renovate our library space, update our internet bandwidth, and explore getting hot spot supply to meet hot spot demand, we will continue to look for new avenues to access for everyone – a bridge libraries need to help build.
Tim Longo is director of Technical Services at the Evanston Public Library. The Library was founded in 1873 and serves a highly diverse and evolving community. More than 1,600 people use its resources and services every day.