Tackling the digital divide

It is almost 30 years to the day that I started as a Saturday boy at Small Heath library in Birmingham. The pace of change since that time has been enormous, particularly on the digital front. When I started libraries were still using paper tickets and reference cards!

As a result of this rapid change, learning and re-skilling will be key for our society and during Libraries’ Week it’s important to remember the crucial role that libraries play in this process.

‘We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t exist yet, using technologies that haven’t been invented, in order to solve problems, we don’t even know are problems yet.’ shifthappens.wikispaces.com

In order to meet these challenges, we developed the Digital Universal offer.

On one level, the offer sets out minimum standards: free internet access and public wifi, 24-hour virtual services (including e-books), and well-trained staff. But it’s much more than that; it’s a framework for libraries in the digital age.

The Digital Universal Offer underpins all the others because technology drives everything libraries now do, both in terms of the customer experience, in real libraries and online, and behind the scenes.

We live in a digitally divided society. While most of us are online every day – at work and at home – there are still millions of people who have never been on the internet and who don’t have a computer, tablet or smartphone. Some never will.

Libraries have responsibilities on both sides of the digital divide. We have to provide more and better services for the tech-savvy. At the same time, we have to ensure that people who lack digital know-how are not excluded, and can get help to access the online information and services they need.

So we must ask: are libraries successfully reaching customers on both sides of the divide and what more can we do? That is the basis for our future agenda.

Staff are libraries’ most valuable assets. In these days of fake news and alternative facts, we need to emphasise our role as trusted information professionals, who can help people access quality, credible online resources.

Two examples of our current projects are the SCL Digital and Family Learning Roadshows which trains frontline staff to deliver digital workshops to families and the Single Sign On which allows users to access all available online library journals without having to keep signing in.

Then there’s the Digital Single Presence project, which looks at the potential to create a single national platform to share content and programming. This is being taken forward by the British Library, following a report commissioned by SCL.

Traditional borrowing may be going down in some areas but digitally there’s plenty of growth and so many exciting things are happening in libraries. Last year public libraries received 96 million website visits; that’s more than three every second. The fact remains that in a digital age, demand for physical, trusted spaces is on the rise.

Ayub Khan MBE Digital Lead SCL & Vice President CILIP