Library Computing and the Fight for Digital Equity

Public library broadband is a valuable source for the “digitally marginalized,” according to a new study from the University of Kansas Institute for Policy & Social Research

Telecompetitor readers understand the important role that public libraries can play in providing internet connectivity for people who don’t have it available to them at home or who can’t afford service. But as the study notes, public libraries also may play an important role in helping people use the internet — a role the researchers refer to as “technological capital.”

The researchers also tested a new USB-based connectivity option for users of public library computers aimed at enhancing the experience of using those computers by enabling a higher level of customization. More on that in the next section.

The research about library broadband comprises one chapter of a broader study titled “Broadband in Kansas: The Challenges of Digital Access and Affordability.” The chapter about library broadband delves into the three primary areas that comprise what digital marginalization.

The three areas are digital access, digital literacy, and technological capital.

Digital Access

The first area reinforcing the “digital divide” is digital access. While some people possess the skills needed to use computers, they don’t have access to the tools (e.g., computers, laptops, tablets) or the internet connection required to fulfill basic digital functions. Drawing on 2018 Pew Research data, the study reports that access to broadband drops off for people with household incomes under $30,000.

Libraries have been helping address digital access challenges for years. Almost 70% of the people studied said that they were using library computers because they lack access to the technology they need: “41 percent cited lack of a home computer, 16 percent cited lack of home internet (exclud­ing mobile hotspot), 8 percent cited lack of a printer.” Just over a quarter (26%) of these users said they cannot afford broadband service or don’t believe home broadband is worth the price.

The University of Kansas developed and is testing, in the libraries, a system called PUPS (Personal User Privacy and Security). PUPS is “a USB-based virtual computing environment… designed to afford public computer users increased customizability, session state per­sistence, and security as compared to the restricted use settings of most library PCs.”

In other words, while library computers are generally locked down and don’t allow for customization, PUPS gives its users the feeling of a personal computer, including the ability to download software and retain their unique user settings. They found that PUPS is most useful to users with digital access but was less useful for users struggling in the second area: digital literacy.

Digital Literacy

The study defines digital literacy as “the practical know-how people use to solve problems specific to digital life: managing online accounts, installing software, protecting personal data online, doing basic troubleshooting, and so on.” People who lack digital literacy simply may not know how to perform basic digital and computing functions that modern life requires.

About 29% of the people studied self-identified as being below average in terms of “computer-savviness.” Library staff who were interviewed for the study “noted relatively low levels of digital literacy among the general population of library computer users.”

The study argues that lack of digital literacy makes it difficult to live a modern life: “Updating a resume to change jobs, resetting a lost password, accessing financial records, or connecting with friends on social media are just a few examples of things those in the digital mainstream do every day. Indeed, people are expected to know how to do these kinds of tasks.”

The PUPS tool developed by the University of Kansas was less useful for users with digital literacy challenges, who do not understand the benefits offered by PUPS or how to use it. The solution for these users may be “structured classes in which a basic curriculum of digital how-tos, best practices, tips and tricks would be presented at a skill-appropriate level and pace.”

Libraries will likely be leaders in these types of digital literacy programs in the future.

Technological Capital

The researchers use the term “technological capital” to mean “the benefits of having routine access to people with technological know-how.” This know-how is given voluntarily and without charge.

People have technological capital when they don’t have digital literacy but do have—for example—children, grandchildren, or friends who can help them navigate the digital realm.

“In some cases,” the study reports, “individuals lack not only access and digital literacy, but also social rela­tionships with others who are willing to share their own digital literacy skills and knowl­edge. So, many middle-aged and older users now cannot leverage any real techno­logical capital.”

Many of the people using computers in the libraries were there because they could both use the computers and ask the staff for help. The study tells the story of a woman named Valerie, in her fifties, who needed staff help off and on for six hours as she used the library’s computers to deal with an eviction notice.

The study includes this story “to illustrate the collision between the normative expectations of a highly technologically advanced society and one of its citi­zens, whose negligible technological capital amplifies their lack of economic and social capital.”

Methods and Conclusions

Carried out across eight library branches from 2017-2018 and 2021-2022, the University of Kansas library study involved various methods including active participant observation, interviews, data analysis, and testing of the PUPS tool.

Its authors conclude with a call for public programs that address digital marginalization: “community-specific initiatives should be developed in concert with state and federal agencies (and vice versa). These initiatives should involve a range of stakeholders, including public library administration and staff, digital literacy professionals, and library patrons themselves to provide digital access and literacy training to library users.”

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