Sunday, October 5, 2014

Reading "Digital Literacy and Digital Inclusion"

Digital Literacy and Digital Inclusion: Information Policy and the Public Library by Kim M. Thompson, Paul T. Jaeger, Natalie Greene Taylor, Mega Subramaniam, and John Carlo Bertot.

Preservation is not an island. The information and artifacts we preserve do not exist solely to be preserved. Preservation is an important part of the larger context of the world of institutionally based information and artifacts. It can be helpful at times to step back from the binder’s bench, or the hard drive and observe and learn from other aspects of the life and purpose of the information and artifacts we preserve.

I approached Digital Literacy and Digital Inclusion with two interests: 1) The topic of the book is not something I’ve given much thought to and I’m just curious to know more, 2) What does this topic have to say to issues of preservation, and what does preservation have to say to this topic? (Okay, that may be three interests.)

I’ll provide a very brief summary of what the book has to say, and then address where preservation fits in.

In a sentence, this book is about looking at government policies that use public libraries to foster digital literacy and inclusion; both how it has happened, and how it could or should happen.

It is important to understand the definitions the authors are working from.
Digital literacy: “the ability to use the Internet to meet informational needs.”
Digital inclusion: “access to the Internet in order to apply the skills of digital literacy.” (p. 1)

The authors assert that access happens on three levels – physical, intellectual, social. Physical: do people have physical access to the hardware and connection necessary to encounter digital information? Intellectual: can people understand the digital information they have access to, e.g. is it in a language they understand? Social: this one is the most abstract but it includes questions like, do people access online information? Are there cultural customs or norms that affect information availability and use?

The authors make a strong connection between digital inclusion and social justice and interests of social justice run throughout the book. “The link between social exclusion and the digital divide has indeed become one of the defining characteristics of digital exclusion because of the strong link between those traditionally marginalized and those negatively affected by increasing reliance on technology.” (p. 28)

Public libraries in the United States are the nexus of digital inclusion and literacy. Federal programs like E-rate help provide broadband access to libraries, and governments increasingly rely on public libraries to work as intermediaries providing online access to government services and information.

The authors provide three national model case studies of digital inclusion: South Korea, Netherlands, and Australia. In these brief studies they provide summaries of demographics and rates of digital inclusion, as well as highlight what roles public libraries play, and what types of government policies are in place. Compared to the U.S. these countries tended to have more homogenous populations, and stronger centralized government.

The authors also provide three studies of countries moving toward digital inclusion: Columbia, Honduras, and Ghana. It was noteworthy that public libraries did not have a strong presence in any of these countries, but relatively inexpensive access is often available through internet cafes.

Government’s initial policy and interest early on is about providing physical access – providing hardware and connectivity. From there policies need to move to issues of intellectual and social access.

The final chapter, “Recommendations for Practice, Advocacy, and Research” is the chapter I would give to policy makers and related folks. Based on the extensive research documented throughout the book, (and it is extensive and documented) the authors focus on the policies necessary to enable public libraries to flourish as agents of digital literacy and inclusion. “Public libraries are evolving into community institutions that … meet a wide range of community needs but digital literacy and digital inclusion remain at the center of all of [sic?] initiatives.” (p. 133)

The authors make the case that public libraries need to be included in digital literacy and inclusion policy discussions. They assert that public libraries need to be more vocal and stronger advocates for their cause. While I understand that assertion, it seems to me that every group with policy interests is posing that same challenge to their constituency. I’m not sure that everyone’s voice getting louder is a great way to get at the solution, but, apart from being a ridiculously wealthy campaign donor, I don’t have anything better to suggest.

To help foster the case for digital inclusion and literacy the authors recommend more research in the efficacy of digital inclusion programs as well as who uses digital literacy resources.

While I think this is a valuable book for policy makers, I think it is probably a more helpful and effective book for those who help influence policy as well as put policy into action, like state libraries, federal agencies, and state and national library organizations. The book also raises that I think anyone who deals with providing access to digital content should think about.

Okay, but this is a preservation blog. Where does preservation fit in to all this, you might ask? As mentioned at the beginning of this post, I think looking beyond our preservation interests to other’s interests in the information and artifacts we preserve can only be helpful.

Reading this book, however, did produce a few preservation related thoughts. The first ones are about what the digital inclusion and literacy interests might have to learn from preservation interests. And finally, what preservation minded folk might have to learn from these issues of inclusion and literacy.

The book speaks a lot about providing access, but doesn’t directly address the topic of providing sustained or ongoing access. It is important that someone be able to access some information today, but it is equally important that the information is also available in the future. This ongoing access is the concern of digital preservation. Policies need to be in place to ensure the information need to access is there whenever they need it and does not vanish due to poor planning.

Relatedly, personal digital literacy skills need to include knowledge of “personal digital archiving” (PDA). It is not enough to teach people how to access and create digital content, but they need to have a basic understanding of how to ensure their digital content, both online and offline, is maintained in a usable form for as long as they need it.

Finally, I think the charge the content of this book has for people working in digital preservation is to understand these more nuanced definitions of access – physical, intellectual, social – and then explore how we can do a better job of providing those levels of access.  

Okay, one more idea that just found its way into my head. Digital inclusion should also shape policies for what digital content is selected for preservation. Libraries and archives are actively preserving digital content and digital inclusion should mean not only do all communities have ability to engage digital content, but that they can also find their own voices preserved there.

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