Between digital inclusion and social equality: the role of public libraries in Newcastle upon Tyne

library-and-information-researchMaria Laura Ruiu, Massimo Ragnedda, Between digital inclusion and social equality: the role of public libraries in Newcastle upon TyneLibrary and Information Research Volume 40 Number 123 2016

Abstract This paper is based on findings obtained from qualitative research on the role of the public library service in reducing digital inequalities in disadvantaged neighbourhoods in Newcastle upon Tyne. Semi-structured interviews with four libraries’ staff members, and direct observations during ordinary activities and events organised by libraries aimed to explore both the role played by public libraries in reducing digital inequalities and the current challenges that these actors face to promote digital and social equality. It identifies positive impacts produced by the public libraries through digital education and digital infrastructures on disadvantaged neighbourhoods, while also identifying some barriers experienced by public library authorities in providing such services.

1 Introduction “The very existence of libraries affords the best evidence that we may yet have hope for the future of man” – T.S. Eliot This paper’s primary aim is to answer to the following questions: what role do public libraries play in promoting digital literacy? How important is digital literacy in increasing social inclusion? What kinds of activities do city libraries organise to enhance digital and social inclusion? The paper explores the extent to which libraries actively encourage digital literacy amongst local population by organising “free” educational activities. Furthermore, this paper explains the perceptions that library staff members themselves have of libraries as venues to develop and/or improve digital skills. Traditionally, the role of libraries is to ensure the longevity of printed books by owning and organising them, and making them available through library facilities. In a similar way, this model is also valid for libraries that operate in the digital arena. Indeed, libraries tend to buy licenses, organise digital collections on local servers, and make them accessible to the community (Chua and Goh, 2010; Lougee, 2002). Since an increasing amount of information, knowledge, and news has been digitised and, sometimes, is exclusively available online, public libraries have become facilitators for accessing these data. However, since public libraries offer digital services and resources to the community, it should also be their duty to ensure that users acquire skills to use these services. In fact, the IFLA/UNESCO (1994) manifest underlines the importance of the public library in providing equality of access for all. Given that before the advent of the “digital era” one duty of libraries was to help people in accessing and using library resources through direct support and educational activities, it seems natural to suppose that in the digital age they have to contribute towards enhancing digital literacy in order to make users capable of efficiently using digital services. In this sense, libraries are “hybrid” (Kapitzke, 2001) due to their double role in combining traditional and online services: on one hand, as physical identity, they have to ensure in-library services; on the other, as digital identity, they have to enhance digital literacy in terms of not only providing infrastructures but also skills and competences. In addition to providing efficient digital tools and infrastructure such as websites, electronic database and interactive digital communication (see Chua and Goh, 2010), this also means that libraries are expected to fulfil two requirements: training their staff, and enhancing the digital literacy of users. The resulting “cybrary” cannot be uniquely an electronic gateway but it is a combination of physical facilities and cyberspace and service delivery in person and online (Schmidt, 2006). The relationship between libraries and social inclusion has been widely explored in the literature (Caidi and Allard, 2005; Hodgetts et al., 2008; Muddiman et al., 2000). These studies often underline the role of libraries in contributing towards integrating minority groups into host communities (Molz and Dain, 1999), towards challenging juvenile delinquency-related issues (Naylor, 1987) and towards increasing the information literacy of both children and adults (Adams et al., 2002; Harding, 2013; Krolak, 2005). Moreover, libraries provide accessibility to computer stations and the Internet, increasing the possibilities for disadvantaged people to access information (Chowdhury, 2002; Dijk, 2005).

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