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The Poor Will Always Be With Us

It’s All Good is usually brimming with edgy but interesting ideas I nearly always agree with, so I was surprised to read yesterday that Alane had strapped on a flight suit, jumped on the deck of The Good Ship LibraryLand, and declared, “Digital Divide: Mission Accomplished!”

Earth to Alane: not so fast, not so fast. The reality, down here among the hoi polloi, is that the Digital Divide is a real problem, and another reality is that libraries work hard to help real people with the very real problems of computer access. Not only that, but libraries are always underfunded and underequipped. If you don’t believe me, just ask John Bertot at FSU, whose 2005 study of public libraries and the Internet (underwritten by the Gates Foundation) makes all these points and then some, with whipped cream and a cherry on top.

I was just getting warmed up on this post when I saw George, at IAL, had pretty much “posted for me,” to use early netspeak. I’ll return to the guns of August (as I think of this month, with vendors and contracts and databases, oh my), with this last thought: collaborative blogs offer a depth, or faceting, of perspective you just can’t get from one voice.

Now, George and Alane, you two stop fussin’ at each other and go get some ice cream!

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  1. Mark wrote:

    Karen, I respectfully ask that once things calm down for you that you go back and reread Alane’s post. I don’t believe that she said anything close to how you interpreted it.

    I do also appreciate George’s comments, and Jessamyn’s and Rochelle’s at their blogs. They are all right, from A point of view.

    That is the main problem with this issue. It is so large and can be viewed from many different angles. But that is exactly what Alane was arguing for:

    “It’s about poverty, education, cultural values and literacy.”

    “Sadly, it will take a lot more than access to the Internet to span this divide and perhaps libraries can do a great deal to address the problems manifested as the “digital divide” by providing more literacy programs not more computers.”

    Now, I’m not sure what that “look on the bright side” clause was about in one sentence. But other than that, she made an eloquent and, in IMHO, correct argument that it is a very complex problem and never once suggested that it was over. Take a look at that last sentence again. Does that suggest we’ve solved it?

    And like Jessamyn suggested, technological literacy, and access, is part of the equation. Maybe Alane could’ve reworded things a wee bit, but she did not claim computers weren’t important at all. She only claimed that they alone are not the solution–and in that she is entirely correct.

    Good luck with the “guns of August”. Facing my own at the moment, just different models and calibers, but I know the feeling.



    Tuesday, August 16, 2005 at 8:17 pm | Permalink
  2. No, Mark, I’ll stick with my assessment of Alane’s post. To paraphrase Woody Allen, 80% of success is just providing the computers. It’s like disease. Amazing what clean water and vaccinations can do.

    Wednesday, August 17, 2005 at 7:33 am | Permalink
  3. Alane wrote:

    What fun! I love a good to-and-fro! I certainly do not think the digital divide challenge/discussion is over because it is about Really Big Issues that are beyond librarianship and so out of our locus of control. Nope, don’t think that at all. And having lots of computers and other computing technology, and bandwidth and so on is really important…but assuming that having enough of all this will solve the problems is wrong-headed and I wish the discussions about the digital divide focused on more than the hardware and infrastructure. More on this at IAG today.

    Karen….don’t think I’d fit in a flight suit. I’d have to run around the flight deck a few thousand times first.

    Wednesday, August 17, 2005 at 1:01 pm | Permalink
  4. Nothing like a little good, healthy controversy to hype the ratings, eh? I don’t think Alane and I are ready to start throwing chairs at each other a la Jerry Springer, but if we felt the same way about everything, there’d be no need for both of us (or our grown-up, Alice) on the blog!

    The ice cream sound good, though. Hey, Alane, want to meet at Grater’s?

    Wednesday, August 17, 2005 at 1:25 pm | Permalink
  5. Jackie wrote:

    It’s interesting to see this discussion in light of the fiasco in Richmond, VA when the school district sold 4 year old used laptops for $50.00.
    Hardly proof of the end of the digital divide.

    Wednesday, August 17, 2005 at 1:40 pm | Permalink
  6. In the Air Force we often called flight suits “bags.” I envied pilots that nice loose clothing. Cammies are much heavier and don’t have the fun shoulder pockets!

    Wednesday, August 17, 2005 at 1:58 pm | Permalink
  7. I read that too, Jackie. And it doesn’t even surprise me. I’m trying to remember what colleges actually GIVE laptops to all incoming frosh–I think Drew might do that.

    Wednesday, August 17, 2005 at 2:01 pm | Permalink
  8. Alane wrote:

    Staying true to my outwardly cynical nature (and you know a cynic is just a disappointed romantic, right?) I have to suggest that the feeding frenzy for cheap laptops was more about cheap goods than spanning the digital divide. How else to explain photos of people with 3 TVs in a shopping cart during sales? Besides, the mere ownership of a computing device means nothing if the owner hasn’t a) a clue about how to use it b) hasn’t the knowledge or the means to acquire access to the internet, c) even assuming a and b are not factors, Katie is right that many people live in dead zones, and d) has no idea there’s anything of educational value on the web and couldn’t find it anyway. What subject terms would a person with Grade 3 literacy skills use?

    And unfortunately, we (OCLC) have some pretty compelling data from the survey we commissioned that says most people (those surveyed…over 3000 in 5 countries) had no idea what resources the libraries in their communities had. Now, *that’s* the real divide.

    Mark, my “bright side” remark was just one of a string of cliches, signifying nothing.

    Karen, I love garments and purses with lots of pockets…unfortunately these are not practical as I age and never remember what pocket I put things in.

    Wednesday, August 17, 2005 at 4:42 pm | Permalink
  9. You are absolutely correct that libraries suck bigtime at marketing. It frustrates the heck out of me, and I worry it will kill us. But I see this as a different (though related) issue.

    As for the cheap laptops, I’m sure some were motivated by greed. (I once stood in line for an hour to get a Target apron. Though it’s a very nice apron–red, not surprisingly, with pockets.) And I’m sure some needed a laptop. Without the device, there is no literacy. That’s true of reading, as well: the bottom line is you gotta have books.

    I had a lot of pockets in my cammies, but all in the wrong places. I sewed most of them shut. It’s that shoulder pocket I coveted!

    Wednesday, August 17, 2005 at 4:51 pm | Permalink
  10. Ruth Ellen wrote:

    “the bottom line is you gotta have books”

    … or cereal boxes.

    Wednesday, August 17, 2005 at 5:41 pm | Permalink
  11. lislemck wrote:

    I have known three cases now of families or individuals who purchased PCs and never took them out of the box. One of them was a librarian who spent hours researching her purchase, which was to be used writing a book after she retired.

    I ran into her some time after she retired (2 years?), which was when she told me it was still in it’s box in her living room. She was too intimidated to put it together, and too embarassed to ask for help. When I offered to help, she said no, she wasn’t interested any more.

    I have to agree with Alane that computers alone will not solve the so-called digital divide. It is a bigger, wider thing. Libraries and computers cannot bridge this social, economic, and education gulf. I love computers to pieces and have trained users and trainers for what feels like forever. I don’t know what our return on investment is. Maybe it’s similar to return on the lonely kids saved by libraries and librarians in the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s…We win some bits and pieces of the battle here and there, but we don’t get to claim decisive victories.

    I got a hug today from a kid I tech trained when he was an intensely shy high school freshman who didn’t speak much English. Now he’s a very confident college junior. That training did change his life. So I get to chalk one up. I trained hundreds of teens over four years. He is the one I am sure I helped.

    Do you know the story of kid on the beach where the starfish have washed up? The kid is throwing the starfish back into the water one at a time. An adult says to him, “Why are you doing that? You can’t save all those starfish. You are not making a difference.” The kid looks down at the starfish in his hand, lobs it into the water, and says, “Well, I made a difference to him.” I don’t know that we can ask for more than that.

    Thursday, August 18, 2005 at 6:06 pm | Permalink
  12. Vickie wrote:

    I am speaking as an unemployed degree librarian and single mother re. the digital divide. Yes it is there, and it is huge. All of my daughters classmates hand in their work printed from a computer and I have deep suspicions based on the level of work in them, that the parents are assisting them with it (which is the childs loss of course, but let’s not get into that) – my daughter is constantly told how messy her reports are, and she is asked to do things like have bold headings or different fonts that are difficult without a pc. I know how to use one, and so does she but until recently we couldn’t afford one. We still can’t and I don’t know how long we will be able to keep up our internet sub. I also went to a job interview and it was going great until I admitted (foolishly) that we didn’t own a computer at home. How many govt or other services say, “and consult our website” – it has become a family joke to us — whenever a service can’t get its message out, they just dump you onto a web address and feel they’ve done their job. However, I must also say, that once you get onto the site, the information is sometimes not there. I think there is a big problem with quality work today, and alot of coasting going on that subsitutes for productivity. Can libraries bridge the gap? Well, they are better than nothing, but to really make a difference you need a computer at home — and libraries can’t provide that, nor should they see it as their function. I think it would help if libraries had stricter guidelines as to what uses their public computers could be put – ie. strictly research or employment related – (this applies also to kids re school work ). Libraries are so afraid to impose quality standards on the public – which is unlike almost any other tax-funded service – eg. do the police say that they are only going to police the crimes that the public thinks are important? do people on welfare get the kind of benefits that they think they need? This quality extends to providing public computer services – working in libraries I have seen that 80 percent of the time they are used for noneducational games, email and the latest mind-numbing internet phenomenon. How about this — of 10 computers devote 2 to junk uses, and the rest for research/school projects/etc.?
    Of course there is also the issue of highly educated people with money who aren’t willing to use computers = this is perhaps a different issue, but I have seen teachers who refuse to have a computer. Well, I can understand this when a well written reference book can answer a question in 2 minutes as opposed to a 20 min. internet search ( I read a study somewhere). Books still work in a power failure or when the net is down – all you need is daylight. What is really scary is that a lot of excellent sources are dying out because they aren’t being purchased anymore because misguided boards feel that the internet is all they need for research. There was also that lovely phenomenon when it was found that computers were off-gassing unhealthy plastic fumes from materials that were not supposed to be contained in them(but nonetheless were). I think the trouble with the educated people is that they don’t realize that there is some good and valuable information on the net, but that it takes work or knowledge to uncover it.

    Wednesday, September 26, 2007 at 2:19 am | Permalink

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