Columbus library helps bridge 'digital divide'

April 11, 2013 10:07:33 AM

Carmen K. Sisson - [email protected]


Love it or hate it, the Internet is here to stay, rapidly permeating almost every aspect of our culture.  


Once a novelty, digital literacy is now a critical skill, and libraries across the country are scrambling to get their patrons up to speed. Last month, the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library joined forces with communities across the nation to show support for the three-year "EveryoneOn" initiative, developed by Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Connect2Compete.  


The group seeks to provide free and low-cost computers and digital training to 100 million Americans who do not have broadband Internet at home and 62 million Americans who do not use the Internet at all.  


When it comes to free training, Columbus is ahead of the curve, offering classes in basic computers, Internet and email, library interim director Erin Stringer said.  


The Thursday classes -- which will not resume until May -- draw people of all ages and experience, from 20-somethings looking to brush up their job searching skills to senior citizens wanting to communicate with distant relatives.  


But from the beginning, there has been a broad chasm between those who use and have access to the Internet compared with those who do not.  


In 1995, only one in 10 adults in the nation used the Internet. By 2011, 78 percent of adults and 95 percent of teenagers were online.  


Initially, the so-called "digital divide" was fairly predictable, drawn by racial and gender lines. But a 2011 Pew Internet and American Life Project survey notes that those are no longer the biggest obstacles. Instead, the sharpest divisions are among those 65 and older, those who lack a high school diploma, and those in households earning less than $20,000 per year.  


And though cost was once a prohibitive factor, the most recent research indicates that now, one in five Americans choose not to use the Internet because they don't see its relevance to their lives and they don't know where to begin. Of those, only one in 10 say they would be interested in email or the Internet in the future. 


That doesn't surprise Erin Stringer who ,as the interim director at the Columbus library, is coordinating the classes. It's an attitude she confronts every day. She tries to make people realize that the Internet is more than just Farmville and Facebook -- it is a way to better themselves.  


"There are so many things you're required to go online and do," Stringer said. "If someone comes in looking for a job at McDonald's or Walmart, they have to get online and have an email address." 


She believes many people, some of whom are still trying to master their flip phones and video cassette recorders, become overwhelmed, not knowing how to get online or what to do when they get there. That's where the classes come in handy. 


"We have people that come in who have never turned on a computer," Stringer said. "We have to physically show them, sometimes putting our hand on top of theirs, how to hold and click a mouse." 


But she is seeing a growing interest in social media, from doting grandmothers wanting to upload photos to Facebook to parents wanting to keep track of their children's online activities. She said the library may offer a Facebook class in the future.  


Thanks to a $10,000 private donation, the library was recently able to purchase and unpack 23 new Dell OptiFlex desktop computers, all of which stay busy the majority of the time.  


The library also offers 150 e-books for online checkout, and Stringer said she used grant money this week to purchase another 250.  


Partially, the library -- and others like it -- seeks to bridge the digital divide, but there is an ulterior motive as well: In an age where many brick and mortars are declining in usage, championing digital literacy is a way to ensure that libraries will continue well into the future.  


"I don't see there ever being a point in time when there's not a physical building," Stringer said. "There's so much to do here. It's not the library as it was 50 years ago. We want to become a community hub where people can come and have a different experience every time. We're trying to make ourselves more relevant by putting ourselves out there."

Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.