Saturday, September 6, 2008

PL 37/08: Public libraries go digital

Filed under: Uncategorized — plinius @ 6:09 pm

In our public libraries the demand for computer access, skills and services continues to grow.

Night games at Drammen public library.

Norway is one of the most “wired” countries in the world. But this deepens the gap between digital “haves” and “have-nots”.

Governments, employers, schools, friends and families expect us to master the web. Those that don’t, feel more and more excluded.

During the past year (07/08) I have coordinated a library program to support the digital “have-nots”. We have provided basic training in the use of computers and current web services to people with limited (or no) data experience.

Most of the training was on a one-to-one basis, but we also offered two hour workshops on spesial topics, such as e-mail, banking and web searches, with a high teacher-to-student ratio. The service was tried out at three different llocations:

  • a central urban library in Drammen, a medium-sized city by the Oslo fiord (60K)
  • a small branch library in Fjell, a multiethnic community  in the municipality of Drammen (3K)
  • an urban library in Hønefoss, a smaller, inland town (25K)

Our conclusion is clear: this is something libraries can and should do.

Crossing the barriers

Standardized courses are not the answer. Our visitors were people that tend to avoid, or drop out from, ordinary course programs.  They will only go digital if they are personally supported and encouraged. Our staff must deal with their personal needs and interests.  As mature adults they must learn in their own way and at their own speed.

Librarians are accustomed to individual work with patrons. With sufficient moral and practical support staff were able extend their traditional reference skills to personalized teaching and support.

Statistical surveys show that the need for this type of training is massive. The Norwegian parastatal VOX, which promotes learning at the workplace, published a national survey of digital competence this spring, with data from 2007.

  • Norway has a population of 4.7 million.
  • The number of adults (16+) is 3.8 million.
  • Ten percent of the adults, or 380 thousand persons, had no computer skills whatsoever. They were defined as skill level 0.
  • An additional seventeen percent were not able to use internet services. They were defined as skill level 1.
  • One million Norwegians are excluded from the web.
  • Half of these are sixty years or older.

A substantial proportion of the “new illiterates” will not learn these skills on their own (self-study) or through traditional courses.

A cultural issue

Their problem is cultural rather than financial. They finished their schooling many years ago. They are not accustomed to the discipline of learning. They work at, or are retired from, routine jobs that did not require constant updates.

Their social contacts – colleagues, friends and relatives – are often in the same position. When they encounter technical difficulties – who doesn’t? – they have nowhere to turn.

Some employees learn to use specialized programs and computer tools at work. But these skills are seldom transferable. Digital competence is not like the multiplication table – something you master once and for all. The web is in constant change. Digital learning is learning to learn.

A concerted effort is needed to integrate these groups in our digital world. Many actors must cooperate. But I believe public libraries are well placed to share in that effort.

American public libraries play a big role as digital learning and resource centers. In the appendix I have included some quotes from the important report Libraries Connect Communities.




The project was financed by VOX and jointly directed by Drammensbiblioteket  and the Department of Journalism, Library and Information Studies at the Oslo University College.

Drammensbiblioteket unites three different libraries – Drammen  Public Library, Buskerud University College Library and Buskerud County Library – in one location.


The State of Technology and Funding in U.S. Public Libraries in 2008

Libraries Connect Communities: Public Library Funding and Technology Access Study 2007–2008 marks the second year of the study, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the American Library Association (ALA), and continues the research of previous surveys conducted by John Carlo Bertot and Charles R. McClure, with others, since 1994.

Quotes from Executive Brief:

More than a decade after libraries first began offering public access to computers and the Internet, the level of sophistication and complexity in managing these technology resources continues to increase. In addition to nearly ubiquitous online catalogs, libraries are building impressive suites of online services—including audio, video and digital collections—and managing access to computer resources via reservation and time and print management systems.

These technology solutions to a common need (to monitor time on computers so as to offer the most access to the most people in the community) relieves staff of maintaining manual lists of users, but adds another layer of technology to troubleshoot and manage. …

In addition to general public access computers, many libraries offer “express” computers for business travelers, tourists and others seeking quick access to email or Internet-based information, along with computer labs for projects that take more time than that allowed within the general computer area—such as writing a resume, taking an online exam or writing a school research paper. …

Finally, where libraries have adequate staff and/or available volunteers, they are beginning to triage technology support for library patrons using computer aides. In many cases this is an adaptation that maximizes the technology skills of high school and college students to assist patrons with troubleshooting and routine tasks, rather than having these students shelve books or do other routine library tasks.

This intervention, particularly common in staffed library computer labs, allows reference staff to focus on higher-level issues, including formal and informal computer training and Web content development. It should be noted, however, that many libraries lack the staff necessary to provide this level of triaged service, and most libraries report that they struggle to meet the diverse technology needs of their patrons on a day-to-day basis.


1 Comment »

  1. […] 37/08. Public libraries go digital. Libraries bridge the digital […]

    Pingback by SK 38/08: Flerkulturell kompetanse « Plinius — Sunday, September 21, 2008 @ 7:53 pm

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