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Bridging the digital divide at your library

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If you are reading this you’re almost certainly on the “haves” side of the digital divide.

You have at least one computer, tablet or smartphone — you may even have all three. For a monthly fee a service provider connects you to all that the internet has to offer and to a community of other users.

You may also make monthly payments for additional streaming music or videos. And for sure you have the skills to use devices and navigate the web. (You found your way to The Lindsay Advocate website, didn’t you?)

Bridging the digital divide at your library
Library Columnist Jamie Morris.

Consider those who find themselves on the other side of the divide — the have-nots. They may not be able to afford equipment much less the $54.99 per month the average user in Kawartha Lakes spends for a service provider. Maybe they’re in a poorly-served rural area. Or maybe they’re older, and feel overwhelmed by the technology and hesitant to wade into unfamiliar digital waters.

Whatever the reasons for being on the wrong side of the divide, the consequences are the same: a form of isolation and an inevitable missing out on opportunities.

It’s our libraries that are taking the lead in bridging the digital divide, providing computers and printers, free Wi-Fi for those with their own devices but no service provider, digital resources, and support and training for technology newbies or those who need a little help getting unstuck.

All 14 branches have computer stations for the public to use. The Lindsay branch has nine upstairs and two in the children’s department. By showing a library card or asking for a guest pass, patrons have a computer for an hour — and longer if nobody’s waiting. All the computers have internet access for doing searches or checking email. And all computers are connected to a printer, so students’ assignments or other documents can be printed off (at a small cost). Thanks to a donation from Pharmasave, the Fenelon Falls branch also has a half dozen iPads that can be used in the library (and an iPad group that meets once a week to learn new skills).

Right now all but one branch has free Wi-Fi (the last – Omemee — will have it by the end of February.) Data use is unlimited. It’s all just a matter of bringing in a smartphone, tablet or laptop then connecting. (As ever, if you’re stuck on how to do this, a librarian is there to help).

With a device (whether the library’s or one’s own) anyone in the community can have internet access. But there’s also access to the library’s ever-growing collection of digital resources.

The portal for all this is the library’s website, which is where any user is taken when logging in to the Wi-Fi. An “online resources” tab that opens the digital resources menu.

What’s on that menu? Start with online and downloadable e-books and audiobooks for all ages. Add current and back issues of a broad range of magazines — Teen Vogue, Car and Driver, Quilter’s World, Gay Times, Maclean’s and 34 others. Digital music, too (individual songs or albums) and movies and television shows for downloading and streaming.

There are also resources for online research, including some geared to children and teens. Whether looking for help choosing an appliance, answering a small business question, investigating your family history or getting some legal or health information, there’s something available.

So much is available, but it takes time, patience and some skill to navigate the online pathways. Even with the seemingly comprehensive “Help Using Online Resources” section built into the website it’s still easy to get stuck.

That’s where what is quite possibly the library’s greatest resource comes into play: the librarians. All library staff can help with common challenges — locating resources or accessing Wi-Fi, for example.

For those who need more help or have tricky technical problems there are staff with specialized skills. Lindsay branch reference specialist, Liz Beauparlant, explains this part of her role.

“Maybe 90 per cent of what I do is technology-related. Part of my role is to help people locate information online and use our databases. I also field lots of questions about devices, including smartphones.”

For more extensive individual assistance, say in setting up and using an email account, or how to download to and use a new e-reader, a few times a month there are opportunities to sign up for half-hour personalized support by branch staff.

In a wired world the library is keenly aware of its expanded mission. Let’s give Jamie Anderson, library CEO and director, the final words:

“We have an obligation to provide both tools and skills. Digital literacy is no longer an option in today’s society. Libraries have long been instrumental in developing literacy skills in our communities and digital literacy is no different or less important.”

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Jamie is a retired teacher and Chair of the Kawartha Lakes Library Board. For The Lindsay Advocate he is reviving the 'Friends & Neighbours' column he wrote for the Lindsay Post, as well as writing a column on the library’s contributions to the community.

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