Friday, 13 April 2012

Without a Net: Librarians Bridging the Digital Divide

I was delighted to get my hands on a copy of this book. Although I've never met the author, Jessamyn West, we have communicated (ironically only online), and she has been an advocate and campaigner, for many years, on library services and librarians being enablers for people to independently get the knowledge and information they need, online and off, to better their lives.

Jessamyn went to library school nearly 20 years ago, at the time of Telnet, Gopher (text-based files, structured in hierarchies) and just as websites were starting to be built. As someone who built the first library school website in the UK in 1993, to pretty much universal "what's the point?" scepticism from others in the department, those times are remembered fondly. As was the increasing rush of people over the next few years to get online, using the Web in particular, as they discovered there *was* a point. But, as Jessamyn points out, even now in 2012, Internet access and use is uneven: "And yet, I still sign people up for their first email account even now." There is still a vital need to teach and enable people of all ages in using online information effectively.

Jessamyn points out that her book "is not a manual". Rather, it discusses and addresses the root causes of the digital divide, instead of ignoring the individual nature of those not online and assuming - as many other training guides do - that there is a typical, homogenous, offline and technologically disadvantaged person. Unusually, this particular book is written from the perspective that people have reasons for being offline (which may or may not be within their control), whereas many other guides in this area is written solely from why people should be online (therefore assuming, often wrongly, that they can and have the prerequisite IT skills).

As Jessamyn discusses in the book, some of the reasons why people are not online are social or economic, and it sometimes helps to know those reasons why so they can be trained, or helped, in an appropriate way. For example, people on the lowest incomes are the least likely to have broadband access at home; these are arguably the economic demographic who need it the most. One of the works Jessamyn cites, by the American Library Association, states that 71% of libraries report that they are the only source of free access to computers and the internet in their community. In these economically turbulent times, with job hunting and CV creation and updating needing IT skills, such access isn't a luxury but a necessity for most adults. Librarians are often the main or sole facilitator of services that can make the difference between a person being employed, or unemployed.

Jessamyn discusses this in some detail, with some of the expectations and pressures put onto the library service (and therefore librarians), and how they can adapt to successfully serving the online information needs of patrons - especially as these needs inevitably change when new forms of technology become mainsteam (e.g. the uptake in Kindle ownership over the recent Christmas period). An element of dealing with patrons successfully that the book covers well is overcoming incorrect assumptions about the Internet. Just about everyone has an idea of what the net is - but that doesn't mean that their idea is correct.

This isn't JUST a book for librarians, or information professionals. Or, for people who are not yet online or able to use a computer, but feel a curiosity or need to do so. It is indeed useful for those people - arguably essential, as there is little out there that is adequately written for the many who are (still) offline. Many of these pre-existing guides are patronising, generic or dated in nature (as a side point, other books that cheerily state or imply on the front cover that the reader is a "dummy" or an "idiot" are puzzling in their approach). But, this particular book is useful for funders, policy makers, sociological researchers, politicians (especially those who strangely assume that all information is online and anyone can just somehow magically get it), teachers, the media, and members of the public who are called on by family and friends for IT help. This book is a collection of sound advice and straight facts that sometimes contradict the (often incorrect) consensus or mainstream media view on who is not "online" and why.

The book is written in an informal, but clear and accurate style e.g. "...if a computer is doing something hinky, there is a reason." This makes for a rapid and easy read, but the text is still of substantive content. Above all, the book is indeed useful for librarians and IT trainers. Not just inexperienced ones, but "old hands" who have been doing this for years. It's easy to recycle the old material, forget how every aspect of technology has changed, and forget the social or economic reasons why patrons need to get online. This book helped to overturn some assumptions I'd unknowingly accumulated after 18 years of teaching people how to get to "stuff" online, either through laziness or ignorance, and I'm hopefully a better trainer for reading it. For example, I've never thought before of telling patrons what the symbol for the on/off button is and to look out for it, despite it often being in a different place on whatever computer(s) they may use outside of the library. One of those obvious, but essential, things that slips under the training radar.

So this book serves as both an introductory guide, and a refresher, for librarians and information professionals. Despite the occasional uniquely American or possibly rural Vermont word (in all cases, easy to work out what is meant), the book is useful for librarians in other countries, based in locales both rural and urban. I've read many books and guides on how information professionals should assist those members of the public who have few or no IT or online skills; these texts vary alarmingly in quality. "Without a Net: Librarians Bridging the Digital Divide" is one of the very few I'd summarise as "essential" for information professionals.

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