Digital Inclusion and Public Libraries
By Karen Gibbins, Principal librarian Information and Technology
Swansea public libraries continue to address digital inclusion through their network of 17 libraries. Along with other libraries in Wales, we provide free public access to PCs, broadband infrastructure and WIFI. We have venues that are settled in their very local communities where people can access services with ease. Libraries remain neutral places, well thought of and respected by all those who have browsed the shelves, sought out information and advice, accessed technology or just needed to sit and be part of a community.
A 2016 a survey conducted by the Society of Chief Librarians throughout Wales demonstrated the levels of engagement in digital inclusion that libraries and library staff have in their everyday work.
In answer to a question about whether library customers needed help from library staff to use Library IT the response was 41% yes and 59% no. This suggests that those who have started to be digitally included still need help and support.
Customers who are seeking out library IT facilities do so because they need access to computers, access to printers, scanners or broadband.
The survey demonstrated that the biggest activity online in libraries is accessing emails at 46%. There is a critical need for everyone to have access to an email address so that they can register for Universal Credit, look for jobs, communicate with the DWP and increasingly receive notifications from GPs and Health agencies. Having access to an email can help reduce financial and debt issues and opens up a whole range of services online to benefit individuals.
Libraries provide an essential role in supporting the digitally excluded whether they are excluded from lack of access or from lack of skills. Library staff are taking on the role of supporting them to gain access and to get to essential government and other agencies’ services.
In addition to day-to-day “drop in” help and advice, libraries deliver Beginner IT sessions focusing on the very first steps to get someone online. Training and resources from Digital Communities Wales have assisted staff to better develop these skills. Digital Fridays are a common event with three-week courses or “drop in” sessions to support new IT users. Fear and safety of accessing services online is a barrier to some customers and libraries participate in internet safety awareness campaigns and promote safe use of the internet to a wide range of users. Ad hoc “drop in” sessions provide opportunities for new-to-digital customers to stay engaged with technology and build on new-found skills.
Libraries are an important partner in supporting culture and heritage and those wishing to access content to trace family or discover more about their local community, its history or its buildings, find that they need to be able to use a wide range of online services to do this. Beginner IT sessions are often linked to accessing resources such as Ancestry or Times Digital Archive and this supports other needs and motivates the acquisition of new skills.
Ebooks, emagazines, online books, newspapers online are all a part of modern libraries and being digitally enabled and skilled will open up access to a large range of news services. These free resources can also be a motivator for individuals to learn to get online.
What next for digital engagement in libraries? Raspberry Pi sessions, Techno lego and coding clubs, fitness and health technology. There are many exciting opportunities, which everyone needs to be able to benefit from. The digitally excluded must be a part of this innovation.
Digital Communities Wales has been instrumental in providing new training and updating the skills of library staff. In particular it supports the delivery of beginner IT sessions, facilitates networking and supports groups for partners involved in supporting the digitally excluded. It shares resources and expertise with front line and direct delivery staff and finds flexible ways of sustaining training opportunities. Train the trainer events and bite sized training modules particularly support the creation of a community of digitally aware champions. DCW has started on the creation of volunteer digital champions to help sustain delivery in the future. One in five people in Wales are still digitally excluded and although progress is being made there is still a long way to go to ensure this number is reduced.
Without organisations such as DCW, libraries, community and volunteer sectors and other partners involved in addressing digital exclusion would be isolated and localised in their delivery and perhaps lose focus on the big picture to see digital exclusion eradicated.
The Wales Co-operative Centre has been working to address issues of digital exclusion in Wales for over 11 years now. Working with Welsh Government the Wales Co-operative Centre has delivered three major initiatives: Communities@One, Communities 2.0 and now Digital Communities Wales. The work has made a significant contribution to addressing the digital divide in Wales, but there is plenty more to be done, as more and more services and interactions are moving into an online space.
Ahead of Get Online Week 2016 (17 -23 October), the Wales Co-operative Centre has invited a wide range of contributors to write a guest blog on Everyone’s Business blog site in an effort to highlight the on going need for organisations across Wales to work together to address issues of digital inclusion.