Those of you who read this blog and follow me online know that two things that really annoy me are the belief that everyone has the internet and therefore we no longer need libraries, and that simply providing access to the internet is enough to ensure an informed populace. Of course, the reality is far more complex than the media and politicians often present. Providing access to the internet is part of the battle (see all my posts here), but the development of skills is also a key component to reducing the digital divide.
At the back end of last week, a report commissioned by Go ON UK revealed that around 16 million people in the UK lack basic online skills (the full report is available here - pdf). Titled “This Is for Everyone” The Case for Universal Digitisation, the report makes the following claims:
There are 10.8 million people in the U.K. who do not use the Internet, and they are consequently more vulnerable. As Booz & Company shows, this is no longer something we can dismiss as somebody else’s problem. We gain the full benefits ourselves only if everyone is online. The lack of basic digital skills for millions means “digitisation” is unbalanced—we will increasingly fall short of the U.K.’s potential if we do not start to address the problem.
A 79 percent usage figure means that about one-fifth of the population—including 10.8 million people 15 and older—do not use the Internet at all. In addition, the e-Learning Foundation estimates that 800,000 of the most disadvantaged schoolchildren in the U.K. lack home access to the Internet. [A] BBC study found that of non-users, 71 percent are categorised among the three lowest socioeconomic groups, 51 percent are older than 65, and 50 percent have no formal qualifications.
Using the Internet requires only the most basic digital literacy, yet lack of skills is cited as a key reason many people are not online. Indeed, 63 percent of working-age non-users and 78 percent of retired non-users state they do not know how to use the Internet.
Nowhere in the report, however, is there any mention of the key role libraries (or librarians for that matter) can play in enabling “universal digitisation”. And yet, the provision of internet access in the local public library is the only way many can get connected and take advantage of the full range of services available online. Libraries provide (in most cases) free access, skilled support and can often provide a certain degree of ‘training’ for those who simply do not have the skills or confidence to navigate the internet. They are, therefore, crucial in encouraging people online and moving the country towards universal digitisation.
A little while ago I wrote a post explaining what I think needs to be done to address the digital divide in the UK. One of the key points I made is that public libraries should play a key role in getting people connected and enabling the economic benefits that the above report claims will come with universal digitisation. The basic infrastructure already exists to reach the goals outlined in the report, unfortunately local authorities are dismantling it and the national government is standing by and letting it happen.