Alleviating Library Burdens Created by the Narrowing of the “Digital Divide”


Now that libraries have successfully increased public access to the Internet for the “digitally disadvantaged,” helping to narrow the “ digital divide,” librarians are shouldering new burdens and responsibilities that accompany the increase in Internet users. While increased Internet access has been the source of these problems, this essay will argue that this increased access can also be the solution. This essay will examine a possible approach librarians can take to alleviate some of these burdens by utilizing online tools with embedded training and feedback to satisfy the additional responsibilities and alleviate some of the burdens. Additional risks associated with this approach will also be discussed and recommendations on how to deal with these risks will be given.


The “Digital Divide”

In the 1990s, the “digital divide” was recognized as the space between individuals with or without access to the Internet. As more people across cultural and economic groups gained access to the Internet, this “digital divide” narrowed. Another divide began to appear, this time between individuals with or without broadband Internet access. As each “divide” narrows, it seems to morph or give rise to another “divide” concerned increasingly with quality of access and less with basic provision. This progression does not appear to be a new one, rather it can be seen in the rise and evolution of any new technology (e.g. videocassette to DVD to Blue-Ray).

Over time, different parties were responsible for bridging the “digital divide.” In the 1990s, government took some responsibility for providing access to the “digitally disadvantaged.” This was seen in Clinton-era policy-making that pushed for increased Internet access in low-access communities around the nation (Kinney, 106). Libraries across the nation also took a leadership role in this push with the result that many low-income and minority groups gained first-time access to the Internet at their public libraries throughout the 1990s and 2000s.

Now that the gap has been narrowed, and more and more people are using the Internet than ever before, new responsibilities have arisen to encompass access quality, usability, privacy, individual autonomy, and quality of life. It seems policy making has declared “mission accomplished” with regards to access and is allowing the responsibility of increasing the quality of Internet access to fall on the librarian and user. Librarians feel a responsibility to educate, train and assist patrons, but often do not have the resources to do so. Lack of funding for librarians to execute this Internet training and education strains library budgets and staff. Therefore, libraries must grapple with these problems while continuing to fulfill their more traditional roles.

Are These New Roles Appropriate For Libraries?

Does the responsibility of providing Internet access and training fall within the scope of the library mission? Why should libraries shoulder this burden instead of other organizations?

In the beginning, it may have been a matter of timing. Libraries began providing Internet access to the “digitally disadvantaged” at a time when Internet access was not as affordable or accessible in many parts of the country. The library was an established public institution in which Internet access could be inserted with relative ease. Additionally, studies have “demonstrat[ed] the increasing role of the Internet in solving everyday information needs” (Kinney, 136). Providing Internet access allows libraries to continue fulfilling their role as a free access point to information.

Increased Access ≠ Increased Quality of Life

As libraries’ role as an information source diminished, their role as an active participant in the community expanded. These community roles include coordinators of adult and children literacy programs, as well as providers of Internet access, training, and guidance (Kinney, 132).

The Internet is no different from any other tool, insofar that a process of education and training must occur before the user can fully utilize its potential. By itself, a basic increase in Internet access does not bring to pass an Internet-based skill set or an increased quality of life for the user. A new user must learn to perform Internet searches, manually enter in website URLs, set up and check e-mail accounts, and so on.

Developing individual autonomy, and subsequently increasing quality of life, is a mission that will likely become more common to libraries in the 21st century (Barbakoff, 6). It is also central to the mission of decreasing inequalities among the “digitally disadvantaged” (Kinney, 113).

New Strains on Libraries

Providing free and public Internet access is accompanied by increased budgets, resulting from initial costs (e.g. equipment investment) and long-term costs (e.g. staffing, data service packages, equipment maintenance).

“ Heavy demand for training services” (Kinney, 133) has been reported as a significant strain on libraries offering public Internet access. The types of training varies. Some users need simple assistance with setting up e-mail accounts or performing web searches. Some users need help with more advanced, time-intensive tasks such as searching for jobs online and building and submitting resumes. Each user interaction inserts additional tasks into librarians’ already busy schedules, potentially decreasing the amount and quality of work produced by the library’s staff.

In addition to training, librarians feel somewhat responsible for managing the user experience and content viewed. Librarians must coordinate timed terminal usage to allow more patrons accessibility. In some cases, librarians have also taken on the role of screen monitors in conjunction with requirements accompanying federal funding (Kinney, 140). Internet filters can relieve some of the burden of monitoring, but sometimes the installation and training costs required for the filters do not balance out the federal funding. Some libraries have declined funding due to this imbalance (Kinney, 140).


Online and Desktop Tutorials as Virtual Library Assistants

To relieve some of the burden shouldered by libraries offering free and public Internet access, librarians should utilize online tools and applications that have built-in training and feedback. This approach can serve the dual purpose of increasing individual autonomy and reducing library’s current Internet-related staffing and budget strains.

A trend of desktop software, and more recently online tools and applications, is to make the user experience more explanatory and self-educating. This can be traced at least as far back as the installation of Solitaire on computers running Windows 3.0 in 1990 (Levin). The intended purpose was to develop users’ manual dexterity with the mouse, a skill necessary to mastering other applications on the operating system. Since Solitaire, computer applications are increasingly designed with built-in training and feedback, becoming increasingly easier to install and use. This trend of embedded training and feedback is frequently appearing on the Internet as more applications become Internet-based.

One recent example is Google Docs. Google Docs, a free service provided to Internet users, allows users to create rich-text documents, spreadsheets, drawings, tables, and presentations. In essence, it provides for free what Microsoft Office has charged for for over two decades. Admittedly, Google Docs has fewer advanced options than MS Office, or even its open-source competitor Open Office. For the basic user, though, Google Docs is more than satisfactory. What is even more crucial, is that when a user signs up for Google Docs, they are walked through the creation of a new document, step-by-step. The web-based application provides feedback along the way, training the user.

Google Docs is by no means singular in this approach. Developers of many new Internet applications take the time to build in training so that the user may self-educate while using the application. Another service commonly provided by librarians, resume building, is provided, for free, by many websites. One example,, offers free accounts to users. Account holders can access resume templates and build resumes using simple forms and drag and drop features. Furthermore, it allows account holders to download their resumes and even post their resumes directly to job sites such as

It appears that emerging Internet-based technology is attempting to reverse the trend of the “digital divide.” Instead of bringing a more elitist status to new users, new applications are shouldering the responsibility for training the consumer, in many cases effectively turning the consumer into a producer. Librarians should take full advantage of this trend to relieve the strains put on staff and costs. If librarians do utilize this approach, the problem then becomes finding quality, free applications and directing the library patron to these tools.

How Can Librarians Effectively and Efficiently Guide Users to These Tools?

As “guides to the Internet” (Kinney, 132), librarians acquired the responsibility of navigating through the expansive online world to lead their patrons to the correct information or application. By identifying, in advance, online applications that are safe, possess built-in training, are easy to use, free, and produce a high quality product, librarians can efficiently and effectively satisfy this role. Simultaneously, they can begin to relieve the burdens related to their roles as Internet trainers and educators.

Librarians will need to exercise caution in selecting the online tools they will promote. One pitfall that must be avoided is promoting an online application that is only temporarily free. Some websites offer “trial” versions of a tool, during which the tool is free for a limited time. The terms of agreement are not always clear to the user and sometimes mislead them into thinking that their account will be deleted after the trial period. If this is not the case, the website may have enough personal information to begin extracting payments, unbeknownst to the user.

Once librarians select the online tools, one method of quickly informing new users of relevant applications is by creating reference sheets. These reference sheets could be located at each computer workstation and contain enough information (in multiple languages) to direct a user to the most relevant application. The information on the sheets could be sorted in multiple ways. For example, one sheet could sort applications by name, another by task. If a user wants to build a presentation, the task sheet section on “ presentations” could instruct them on how to sign up for a Google account, navigate to Google Docs, and begin editing a new presentation. Google Docs’ tutorials could then begin training the user to produce a final product.

Networking tools can be used to coordinate the approach between libraries. If a librarian discovers a new online application that satisfies the goals and guidelines of the approach, organizations such as the American Library Association can help disseminate the information to other librarians. This will help keep all librarians up to date on emerging applications that will assist them in their Internet provision, training, and guidance responsibilities.

Will Library Patrons Accept The New Approach?

Even if every effort is made by librarians to implement this new approach, it is likely that some users will prefer face-to-face interactions. This is a preference that individuals may never, and perhaps should never, change. It is likely that the confidence a live phone call or face-to-face interaction can give is will always outweigh computer-based feedback.

The goal of this new approach is not to entirely replace the librarian, but only to lessen the amount of time a librarian needs to spend answering questions and training Internet users. The desired outcome is that fewer librarians will be needed to manage the computer workstations, allowing more librarians to fulfill other roles in the library.


The Internet as a “Public Place”

Patton defines a public place as a place that “form[s] a material basis for transportation, recreation, performance, shopping, political activism, opportunities for informal exchange, and chance meetings” (Patton, 182). Additionally, Patton speaks of public places as malleable places owned and maintained by the public (Patton, 182).

With the exception of transportation, the Internet satisfies these criteria. Recreation (online gaming), performance (YouTube), shopping (eBay), political activism (, informal exchange (social networks, online forums), and chance meetings (online chat rooms) are all represented. The Internet is malleable in that is used for a variety of purposes. Access to the content on the Internet may be thought of as owned and controlled by government and business, but the vast majority of Internet content is owned and maintained by the public. The Internet meets Patton’s criteria and can therefore be considered a “public place.”

The “public place” perspective of the Internet is echoed in a recent New York Times article, How Privacy Vanishes Online, written by reporter and author Steve Lohr. The article examines the increasing capability of Internet surveillance and statistical analysis to identify people through Internet usage patterns. The article ends with a quote by Cornell University computer-science professor, Jon Kleinberg:

“‘When you’re doing stuff online, you should behave as if you’re doing it in public — because increasingly, it is.’”

Surveillance On The Internet

The Internet is a unique tool insofar as it allows a user to simultaneously perform and be the subject of surveillance. New technologies are allowing surveillance to infiltrate even the most private settings. The “audience” watching the product of this surveillance (i.e. Internet users) are concurrently being monitored by parties, such as government, website trackers, businesses, and in some cases librarians.

Prevalent applications such as YouTube and Facebook combine with mobile devices that possess the capability to record audio and video in any place and at any time to vastly expand electronic surveillance. For better or worse (often depending on your role in the act of surveillance), this brings transparency to the world around us. Electronic surveillance is traditionally thought of as something akin to closed-circuit camera surveillance, but now many individuals carry surveillance devices inside their pockets. Thousands of hours of audio and video captured on mobile phones, voice recorders, and camcorders are published to the Internet daily. Sometimes this content brings us an already public event such as a concert or speech, but sometimes it brings incredibly private interactions, such as business conversations behind supposedly “closed doors” or an intimate interaction between two people.

Social networking sites also provide users the opportunity to unintentionally release personal information of others. “You may not disclose personal information, but your online friends and colleagues may do it for you, referring to your school or employer, gender, location and interests” (Lohr). According to Lohr, the ability to cross-reference thousands of pieces of data across multiple websites to decipher a person’s identity is still only in the realm of research, but what begins in research can become commonplace. As the technology advances, it could move these data mining tools into the realm of “identity thieves and marketers” (Lohr).

In some cases, marketing is already catching up. Lohr references a recent example with Netflix, in which the company “awarded $1 million to a team of statisticians and computer scientists who won a three-year contest to analyze the movie rental history of 500,000 subscribers and improve the predictive accuracy of Netflix’s recommendation software by at least 10 percent” (Lohr).

Other data mining examples include search engines tracking search words and government attempting to track sites visited. The stated purposes of this surveillance is often better user experience or public safety, but Internet users who are aware of this surveillance can never be entirely sure the surveillance will only be used to “track murderers, paedophiles, save lives and tackle crime” (Casciani).

Risks such as identity theft begin as acts of surveillance and often go unnoticed until negative repercussions are experienced. Research done by Alessandro Acquisti and Ralph Gross, in which they “ reported that they could accurately predict the full, nine-digit Social Security numbers for 8.5 percent of the people born in the United States between 1989 and 2003 — nearly five million individuals” using “statistical correlation and inference” with publicly available data, brings a new dimension to identify theft (Lohr). Individuals who never release their Social Security Number over the Internet could face serious problems, all because someone was able to use their Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr, or a combination of other public accounts, to reveal more private information about them.

Expanded electronic surveillance and Internet surveillance bring an unprecedented level of ambiguity to the world around us. People are unsure of what actions are being recorded, who will eventually have access to these actions, for how long, and in what context the actions will be taken. The Internet is the unidentified third party that makes the whole world a “theatre” where the actors are unsure for whom they are performing (Patton, 184). Because “one’s perception of a place is transformed by the realization that the place is being viewed from another perspective” (Patton, 184), this transformation can drastically affect people’s behaviors and interactions with the world around them.

What Responsibilities Do Librarians Have With Regard To Internet Surveillance?

It seems that librarians do have some responsibility to educate library patrons about the risks of electronic surveillance, but the level of that responsibility is still unclear. If librarians increasingly rely on Internet tools and applications to train and perform tasks otherwise performed by themselves, librarians should attempt to inform users of risks associated with such an approach.

At the most basic level, Internet users need to know that there is risk associated with Internet use. This basic knowledge alone could have an unpredictable effect on the user’s experience, though. Observed surveillance can “simultaneously intimidat[e] some people while reassuring others” (Patton, 185). The goal should not be to frighten people into a heightened state of self-regulation, leading to an “informational panopticon produc[ing] under-developed and less-faceted people” (Patton 186). Rather, the goal should be to guide them safely through a process of personal growth toward individual autonomy.

For example, a library patron who sits down with a librarian with a pencil and paper need only rely on the librarian’s confidentiality when discussing personal information added to a resume or job application. When the user builds a resume or applies for a job online, the risk of identity theft arises if the user does not know what information is safe or appropriate to use in an Internet application. The librarian should attempt to inform patrons about what personal information is appropriate to share over the Internet and what personal information should be withheld.

How Can Librarians Effectively and Efficiently Educate Patrons About The Risks?

The goal of using Internet-based tools and applications is to reduce burdens currently shouldered by librarians. So how can librarians work toward this goal, while effectively informing patrons about Internet-usage risks? The creation of “understanding of risk” and simple reference documents could be a start in the right direction.

Libraries could install “understanding of risk” agreements on library computers that an Internet user must read before access to the Internet is granted. Paper copies of the agreement could also be located at each workstation for continued reference throughout a user’s session. Alternately, video tutorials could be screened at computer workstations before Internet access is granted. Additionally, screen-based and paper documents could classify personal information as public or private. This would clarify differing levels of risk associated with sharing public personal information (e.g. driver license number) versus private personal information (e.g. Social Security number).


Libraries can alleviate some of the burdens that have accompanied their new role as public Internet access provider, trainer, and educator by utilizing Internet-based tools and applications with built-in training and educational features. Beginning steps could include identifying online applications that are safe, possess built-in training, are easy to use, free, and produce a high quality product. Next, easy-to-understand, multilingual reference sheets could be created to help inform patrons about these tools and help them navigate to them on the Internet.

At the same time, libraries must be aware of the increased risks accompanying an increased reliance on the Internet. Librarians must therefore be aware of their additional responsibility to inform patrons about the surveillance risks of using the Internet. Additional reference materials produced by libraries could help inform Internet users about these risks.

The combination of materials guiding users to high-quality online tools while informing them of best-use practices to avoid unwanted results, such as identity theft, will increase the user’s self-reliance. The user will be able to safely navigate the Internet and acquire skills that will allow her or him to make informed decisions and possess “self-governance” (Barbakoff, 2), with an intended result of increasing the quality of life for the autonomous individual.


The approach outlined in this essay could be put into practice with relative ease as a test case in a chosen public library. Measurements could be taken before and after the new approach is put into effect to determine if there is any significant decrease in the costs associated with public Internet use in the library. Such measurements could include recording the number of times library patrons need face-to-face assistance with librarians. Effectiveness of the online training tools could be measured by recording how much time is required for the built-in training of an online tool to train a new user versus how long it would take a librarian to do the same. The results of the case study could be used to make changes to the approach, or the results could show that an entirely different approach is necessary. Whichever the case, the efforts will lead libraries and their patrons in a more productive direction.

Specific goals and guidelines must be set before this or any modified approach is set into motion. Librarians must do their best to work toward these goals to avoid “mission creep,” as well as to measure the success and effectiveness of the approach.

An additional approach that could be explored and tested combines the utilization of online applications with collaboration between libraries and third-party non-profits. The number of non-profits in the United States has grown rapidly over the past decade. A non-profit organization dedicated to training and guiding Internet users could have a presence in libraries. The library would provide the infrastructure and the non-profit would supply the user training through the non-profit’s staff and volunteers. This approach would be accompanied by a new set of logistical problems. These could be explored in a separate essay and an additional case study could be performed.


  • Audrey Barbakoff, “Libraries Build Autonomy: A Philosophical Perspective on the Social Role of Libraries and Librarians,” Libraries at University of Nebraska-Lincoln: Library Philosophy and Practice (e-journal) (2010).
  • Dominic Casciani, “Plan to monitor all internet use,” BBC News, April 27, 2009 (
  • Bo Kinney, “The Internet, Public Libraries, and the Digital Divide,” Public Library Quarterly, 29:104-161 (2010).
  • Josh Levin, “Solitaire-y Confinement: Why we can’t stop playing a computerized card game,”, May 16, 2008 (
  • Steve Lohr, “How Privacy Vanishes Online,” The New York Times, March 16, 2010 (
  • Jason W. Patton, “Protecting privacy in public? Surveillance technologies and the value of public places,” Ethics and Information Technology 2: 181-187 (2000).