A guest blog by Teddy Woodhouse, research manager at the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI).
Parking lot Wi-Fi hotspots in the United States, mobile vans in Ghana, and mobile phone lending in India. These are just some snapshots of how libraries have helped people stay connected through the Covid-19 pandemic.
Beyond just access, libraries can help offer meaningful connectivity – where internet access can advance personal, professional, or educational development. We at the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) have identified four factors of internet access that are important thresholds for connectivity to become meaningful: a 4G mobile connection; smartphone ownership; an unlimited broadband connection at home, work, or a place of study; and daily internet use. Libraries are part of this mission towards greater meaningful connectivity for the greatest number possible – and here’s five ways how.
- Libraries broaden the network of connectivity ‘oases’.
A key indicator for meaningful connectivity is daily access to an unlimited broadband connection. These points of high-capacity connectivity are a core part of people’s experiences with the internet. These might be found at home for many: however, libraries are unique in their ambition to offer this level of connectivity to anyone in their community.
Along with schools and places of work, libraries add to the constellation of access points that increase connectivity across a community and build the reliability of internet access as a regular part of someone’s life and as a way of learning and doing business.
- Libraries provide connectivity to the most vulnerable.
Libraries play an essential role in the access to ICT ecosystem, especially for low-income and first-time users who lack the financial means or digital skills basis to maintain their own private connection. Access through institutions like libraries also helps pool the cost burden among a wider number of users, make access more affordable in more remote or marginalised areas, and can, in ideal cases, also provide a basis for wider projects such as community networks.
Through this, libraries ensure that the digital divide does not become a simple copy of income inequality and that an individual’s wealth does not predetermine how meaningful their internet access will be.
- Libraries extend skills and safety along with connectivity.
Libraries are also trusted institutions. In a time of peak misinformation and greater social distrust, libraries have a unique trait in that people from all walks of life are more likely to trust them and the services they offer. The digital divide is not just about infrastructure – it is about the skills gap as well. This boundary – which disproportionately affects women – is one where libraries can be especially effective in providing trained staff and gender-inclusive spaces for learning that enables each individual to develop their skills and become digitally autonomous.
- Libraries help find and grow locally-relevant content.
Librarians help people find information that’s useful for them. This support system enables people to discover locally-relevant content in a way that global search engines cannot replace. It responds to the range of characteristics such as language, gender, or background, which can influence what information is relevant to an individual. Through the trusted support of a librarian, more people are able to learn how to find the information that matters to them online.
In addition to finding locally-relevant content, libraries can help increase the presence of such content online. In a time where just over 60% of the web is in English, there are huge gaps in the world’s knowledge and what parts of that knowledge are available online to speakers of different languages. As connectivity grows in an area, so too does the amount of locally-relevant content. Libraries can support these initiatives through the digitisation of records, hosting Wikipedia edit-a-thons, and other activities.
- Libraries offer new equipment for users to try and to learn.
Many libraries also provide access to equipment that users would not be able to afford themselves. This can be as simple as a desktop computer or extend to specialist equipment such as cameras and 3D printers. While many of these devices would not be affordable for individuals to own and keep within their household, communal access through a library helps expand the possibilities of an individual to use and to build their digital skills around new ICT equipment.
As countries look to the digital economy as accelerators for their post-COVID recovery, skills-building and devices will play an essential part in the broader ecosystem of affordable and meaningful internet access.
Libraries are worldwide, but they need – and deserve – better support. The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) Library Map of the World counts 2.6 million libraries across six continents, but only 381,000 (⅔ of those reporting, and roughly 14% of the total) of those libraries say that they have internet access. Part of this challenge is the availability of data about libraries and their capacities: part of the challenge is connecting those that remain unconnected. If each library were connected to the internet, could expand the global footprint of such public access points nearly seven times over and could be transformational in the informational landscape for those who are currently unconnected or lack the financial means to buy their own connection.
Governments can do more to support libraries and their potential to expand meaningful connectivity. Libraries should be included in national broadband planning processes as stakeholders in consultations, as key institutions to include within targets for connectivity, and as priority opportunities to investment. This includes setting targets for meaningful connectivity. Governments can also sign the Every Community Connected pledge, which identifies libraries as essential to the post-Covid recovery.
Digital inclusion is the foundation of a scalable digital economy. At A4AI, we advocate for affordable and meaningful internet access for everyone precisely for this reason: without widespread access, the possibilities of the internet to help lift people out of poverty and for countries to reach the Sustainable Development Goals are inherently more limited. Realising this goal requires blending together different business models and investment strategies, including public access through libraries, to connect the world.