Role of Public Libraries in bridging the Digital Divide

The United States National Telecommunications and Information Administration popularized the term ‘Digital Divide’ in the mid 1990s to indicate the societal split between those had and those who did not have access to computers and the Internet (Warchauer, 2003). With the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) revolution sweeping across the world, the term has since caught the imagination of social scientists, administrators, media-persons, economists and politicians alike.

They have interpreted it in turn as a social, economic and political problem from their respective perspectives, and sought to offer a variety of solutions to ‘bridge’ the Digital Divide. ICT was initially heralded as a great equalizer. The general impression was that by providing interconnectivity and access to information to all, ICT would provide equal opportunities, and therefore reduce inequalities.

But it was soon clear that the ‘Mathew Effect’ of Merton (1973) could come into play and increase the inequalities even more by translating the initial advantages of those who gained early access to computers and the Internet into increasing returns over time i. e. by widening the Digital Divide. The Social and Community Context The basic problem however lies in defining ‘Digital Divide’. According to Mark (2003) any attempt to bridge the Digital Divide without consideration of the social context could lead to failures and frustrations.

He cites a project undertaken by the Municipal Government of New Delhi in India through which computer kiosks with dial-up Internet connectivity were set up for the urban poor children in New Delhi. According to the policy of minimal invasive education adopted in the project, there were no teachers or instructors to guide the children in computer usage. The project could not achieve much beyond children learning to play games and use simple applications to paint and draws.

On the other hand, The Gyandoot Project in rural areas of the state of Madhya Pradesh in India achieved success because of its community orientation. In this case, the use of computers fulfilled social and community needs. The role of public libraries in providing access to computers and the Internet also has to take all these factors into consideration. The responsibility of public libraries does not end with the provision of the equipment for computer and Internet access.

Public libraries have to take on the role of the educator and the instructor so that users are able to utilize the ICT services efficiently and effectively. The larger orientation of all such services has to be around the fulfillment of social and community requirements in line with the ideals of social and community informatics. The Five Components of Individual Access The concept of ‘Digital Inequality’ as defined by Hargittai (2003) identifies Technical Means, Autonomy of Use, Social Support Network, Production of Content Access and Political Access as the five components of individual access.

Public libraries therefore have to concentrate on providing all the five components to the individual. This would imply that libraries provide state-of-the-art equipment so that users are in no way limited or restricted by the state of the facility itself. Ensuring autonomy of use would suggest providing convenient access to a wide range of users taking into consideration the different timings that could be convenient to different categories of users. This could even entail public libraries offering round-the-clock access to their users.

Public libraries will have to play an active part in building up social support networks for their users. This will not only help the users in picking up Internet usage skills faster but will also bring in new users into the network. Content is

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a very vital issue that determines the quality of online access of any user. Any effort to reduce digital inequality will have to ensure that the user is able to locate relevant information on the net. Hargittai (2003) differentiates between ‘available’ information and ‘accessible’ information.

The available information may not be easily accessible. The phenomenon of information gatekeepers in the form of search engines and other indexing and searching mechanisms adds complexity to the situation. Commercial interests on the Internet more often than not lead the unwary browser away from relevant sources of information. Public libraries will have to take on the added responsibility coaching the novice user in looking for and locating relevant information.

Each library will also have to ensure that they adopt an indexing and searching mechanism linked with their digital subscriptions so that users can find information customized to their requirements. Public libraries will also have to play their part in ensuring that users have access to the institutions that regulate the technologies that they are using so that they are also able to participate in policy formulations and decision-making exercises. Conclusion

The role of librarians and library staff will have to undergo vast changes in order to fit into the new responsibilities. Foster (2000) opines that the underlying concerns surrounding the issue of the digital divide are actually more about the nature and future of education than about the current distribution patterns of technology. Librarians and library staff will thus have to don the mantle of technical educators and social activists to contribute meaningfully to the reduction of the Digital Divide.

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