Essential, Meaningful, Equal? The World Wide Web at 31

The need for resilience in the face of a crisis lay behind the creation of one of the key forerunners of the World Wide Web – ARPAnet. Through facilitating more direct communication between people, the goal was to be able to cope with the consequences of a nuclear attack destroying parts of the network.

Today, on the 31st birthday of the creation of the World Wide Web, the crisis faced is not a military one, but a global pandemic which is seeing millions of people obliged to reduce their movements and change their habits in order to slow or stop its spread.

Thanks to the invention of the Web, and its subsequent development, many people are now facing disruption rather than a complete stop to their activities. Clearly this is not the case for everyone, and there are many working in the health, security, food and other sectors who have to continue to work as hard, if not harder than before.

Nonetheless, for everyone else, the possibility to move so much of their professional and social lives online, at least temporarily, is both unprecedented and welcome. For libraries in particular, it means that there is the possibility to continue to provide core services in support of their communities.

This blog explores this situation further, as well as underlining the need for continued effort to ensure that everyone has the possibility to benefit from this possibility.

 

An Essential Service

As highlighted in the introduction, one of the core features of the World Wide Web is its ability to ‘route around’ challenges and issues, meaning that the loss of any one connection or hub does not mean that all communication is lost.

Clearly the global pandemic faced today is not a threat to the physical integrity of the Web (although there are plenty of other risks here), but to societies and economies. Yet just as the Web and its forerunners were designed to allow life to continue as best possible in the face of a crisis, it now allows a much greater share of our jobs, communication, entertainment and beyond to go on.

This is not least the case when it comes to access to knowledge and culture – the core of the work of libraries.

Clearly the requirement to close public spaces – as already seen in a number of countries – is not something anyone wants to see continue longer than necessary. The virtual cannot replace the physical so easily, and indeed, it is the combination of the two that makes libraries so unique.

However, in those countries which have been most affected so far, we have seen growing use of digital libraries and possibilities to borrow books electronically. It is quite possible that many will be discovering what is available for the first time. Increasingly, libraries are also producing specific pages with reliable information sources about the virus, helping to counteract the far more dubious information that spreads on social media – a great example of libraries drawing on their reputation as places to seek quality information to make a real difference.

Without the Web, it would be almost impossible to continue to help researchers, readers and citizens in general to continue to enjoy their rights of access to information and culture, and to help achieve broader social goals.

 

Meaningful, Equal?

When, two years ago, the world passed the mark of 50% of the population being internet users, this was a moment for celebration. Progress has – thankfully – continued since then, but it remains the case that millions of people are still cut off. For them, the possibilities that the World Wide Web offers to continue with communication, research, and culture are not available.

Furthermore, among many of those who are counted as internet users, a lot will still face limitations, either in terms of what they can access – slow speeds, low data caps, restrictions on content – or on what they can do with it, notably due to low literacy and in particular digital literacy. The share of people enjoying such meaningful access – fast, unrestricted and empowered – is likely to be far lower than 50% still.

In effect, the potential of the World Wide Web to strengthen social, economic and cultural resilience in the face of a crisis like the COVID-19 outbreak may be concentrated in only some areas, even as the virus itself spreads around the world.

For libraries, this is both a challenge and a call to action. Clearly as institutions with a mission to provide access to information for all, it is uncomfortable when it is only the most digitally empowered who are able to do this. Others – older or more vulnerable people who come to use library computers, young parents who rely on story times, students who need to borrow textbooks from the library because they are too expensive to buy – risk facing more disruption.

Looking into the longer term, however, it is clear that once the current crisis is over, and we look back at how to become even more resilient, the type of work that libraries do will be essential.

For a start, the need for media and information literacy in the face of ‘infodemics’ cannot be underestimated. Libraries are already active in promoting the development of the necessary skills to find, evaluate and apply information critically. These can only become more important into the future.

Secondly, broader efforts to build digital literacy, giving more people the confidence and ability to get the most out of the internet – either at the library or at home – will also pay off if a similar pandemic happens again.

Third, the role of libraries as potential hubs or nodes in networks is also clear, making it easier to bring WiFi or other connections into people’s homes, for example via community networks.

Finally, enabling libraries to build up their digital presence – either through their own or through shared platforms – will also mean that they can offer more to people at distance. While this may have specific benefits for entire populations under lock-down, there are many – people in remote areas, those with disabilities – who may find it difficult to access libraries physically at any moment, and so who will also see advantages all of the time from this sort of work.

 

Together, these efforts will mean not only that the World Wide Web can make an even more effective contribution to resilience, but also that access to it will become more meaningful, for all. As the Web advances towards middle age, this is certainly a good life goal to be setting.

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