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Wired Libraries Can Spur Civic Engagement

Libraries reach across digital divide


 

People often express the staggering amount of information available through digital tools by comparing it with what libraries offer in stories of stacks. An October report from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation boasted: “Millions of Americans meet their information needs through broadband service and home computers or Web-enabled mobile phones. At their desks or just walking their neighborhoods, they have access to more information than many nations hold in all the books in their national libraries.” If small digital devices present us with such an impressive amount of information, imagine what a library full of digital tools could do.

The same report warned that the digital age “is not serving all Americans and their local communities equally. It is not yet serving democracy fully. How we react, individually and collectively, to this democratic shortfall will affect the quality of our lives and the very nature of our communities.” The Knight Foundation is banking on libraries to help solve that shortfall. As part of its universal-access initiative, the foundation has awarded grants to 15 libraries in 12 communities in a $3.3 million commitment and plans to fund more soon.

Why Libraries?

“As we were doing the universal-access initiative, we would continually run across the fact that libraries were already these incredible places for providing access to the community, even more so recently in our economic downturn,” says Jorge Martinez, director of information systems for the Knight Foundation and head of its universal-access initiative. He says as folks give up their home Internet connections to save money, they’re cut off from online job applications, basic government services, online tools for non-English speakers and community engagement.

“We’ve heard those stories from our libraries about how the computer room is the most popular room in the library these days and it’s not just one group of folks. Depending on the time of day, you see some different waves of people coming in and different age groups, different socioeconomic backgrounds.”

As an organization that awards grants in an effort to expand information access, the Knight Foundation has its eye on ROI. This made libraries attractive recipients. While methods of measuring libraries’ benefits to their communities differ and estimates vary widely across the country, a series of studies in 2006 revealed taxpayers generally receive between $3 and $6 in direct and indirect benefits for every dollar invested in libraries. You can read more about library valuation here.

 

Morgon Mae Schultz is a copy editor for MSP TechMedia


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