Opinion
Curriculum Opinion

How to Close the Digital Divide? Fund Public Libraries

By Donna C. Celano & Susan B. Neuman — April 06, 2010 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Tough times call for tough measures. And for the nation’s public libraries, times could not be tougher. When it comes to balancing city budgets, local libraries are often one of the first institutions to feel the heat. In Philadelphia in 2008, Mayor Michael Nutter became the center of controversy when he proposed closing 11 libraries, nearly all in poor neighborhoods, to bring the budget into line. And library budgets have faced the chopping block this year in cities in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, and other states.

While this course of action may seem to be a quick fix to a city’s economic woes, closing libraries renders a crushing blow to the nation’s neediest children. Not only does it shut off their access to books and other printed materials that promote literacy, but it also has another serious side effect: widening the digital divide.

Having studied for a decade children’s use of books and computers, the two of us have warned for some time that the public library often is the only place outside of school that a poor child can find a book. We argue now that public libraries may be the only place outside of school where low-income children can use a computer and learn to navigate the Internet.

Although there is evidence that gaps in in-school computer use between poor and middle-income children may be closing, computer use outside of school is nowhere close to being equal. U.S. Census figures show that few low-income children have Internet access at home. While half of all children with annual family incomes of $75,000 or above have such access, just 15 percent of those with incomes between $20,000 and $25,000 do.

Ironically, the pressure to slash library budgets comes at a time when library use is at its highest."

To be sure, there are community agencies and recreation centers that offer computer and Internet access, but for most poor children, the local library remains the surest and most convenient alternative. Public libraries have long filled a tremendous educational need in poor communities by providing print materials, computers, and other services to underserved populations. Now, with more than 95 percent of libraries offering Internet access, about 10 percent of all Internet users look to the library as their only source of such access.

What is lost when we cut off poor children’s access to computers becomes more apparent when we compare how they spend their out-of-school time with how their middle-class peers do. Here, the advantages of online access are clear. While poor children are watching television or “hanging out,” middle-class children are digitally active. Lots of this time, of course, may be spent watching videos on YouTube, playing online games, or chatting with their friends. But they also complete homework assignments online, do research, and visit school-related Web sites. They become more familiar with Google, Yahoo, and other search engines than their low-income peers, and they learn to find their way around the Internet with greater ease.

With assistance from parents and caregivers, these more-affluent kids start using the computer at a younger age. As they grow, they gain more knowledge than their peers from poor neighborhoods. In later years, they will be experts in certain areas, while poor children will be left back, without an equal chance to succeed in a technology-driven world.

Ironically, the pressure to slash library budgets comes at a time when library use is at its highest. In hard economic times, libraries provide a safety net, as the newly unemployed who have been shut off from Internet access at work come to use the libraries’ computers and other resources. The demand for library services is skyrocketing, particularly in financially hard-hit communities. Yet it is the libraries in high-poverty areas, those that serve our poorest children and offer pockets of hope amid steep rates of unemployment, that are the most likely to close.

In a national survey of librarians, we found that these professionals are keenly aware of the digital divide and its ramifications, and that they are willing to help close it. But without adequate funding, they say, their libraries will not be able to continue doing this vital work. They cannot provide print resources to help enhance poor children’s literacy skills, the first step to gaining knowledge and succeeding in school. Nor can they give students access to computers and the Internet, so that they can continue to grow their knowledge base and succeed in a modern world.

Even before budget cuts, many libraries were not able to fill their communities’ needs for knowledge and information. Continuing to slash their budgets will only make matters worse, and will widen the digital divide for poor children. Cutting library funding may be a short-term economic fix, but if our long-term goal is an equitable and educated populace, it is the wrong idea at the wrong time.

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the April 07, 2010 edition of Education Week as How to Close the Digital Divide? Fund Public Libraries

Events

Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Science of Reading: Emphasis on Language Comprehension
Dive into language comprehension through a breakdown of the Science of Reading with an interactive demonstration.
Content provided by Be GLAD
English-Language Learners Webinar English Learners and the Science of Reading: What Works in the Classroom
ELs & emergent bilinguals deserve the best reading instruction! The Reading League & NCEL join forces on best practices. Learn more in our webinar with both organizations.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Curriculum Letter to the Editor Finance Education in Schools Must Be More Than Personal
Schools need to teach students to see how their spending impacts others, writes the executive director of the Institute for Humane Education.
1 min read
Education Week opinion letters submissions
Gwen Keraval for Education Week
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Whitepaper
Media Literacy for the Digital Era: A Must-Have Guide
Equip educators and students with strategies to discern truth amidst misinformation and AI with practical strategies and interactive acti...
Content provided by Britannica Education
Curriculum Q&A Why One District Hired Its Students to Review Curricula
Virginia's Hampton City school district pays a cadre of student interns to give feedback on curriculum.
3 min read
Kate Maxlow, director of curriculum, instruction, and assessment at Hampton City Schools, who helped give students a voice in curriculum redesign, works in her office on January 12, 2024.
Kate Maxlow is the director of curriculum, instruction, and assessment in Virginia's Hampton City school district. She worked with students to give them a voice in shaping curriculum.
Sam Mallon/Education Week
Curriculum One School District Just Pulled 1,600 Books From Its Shelves—Including the Dictionary
And the broadening book ban attempts may drive some teachers out of the classroom.
6 min read
Books are displayed at the Banned Book Library at American Stage in St. Petersburg, Fla., Feb. 18, 2023. In Florida, some schools have covered or removed books under a new law that requires an evaluation of reading materials and for districts to publish a searchable list of books where individuals can then challenge specific titles.
Books are displayed at the Banned Book Library at American Stage in St. Petersburg, Fla., Feb. 18, 2023. In Florida, some schools have covered or removed books under a new law that requires an evaluation of reading materials and for districts to publish a searchable list of books where individuals can then challenge specific titles.
Jefferee Woo/Tampa Bay Times via AP