The Washington Post

Even wired tribal libraries are lagging behind on tech

As much as some places in the United States have struggled to get good, affordable, accessible Internet connectivity, one type of spot on the map has struggled even more than most: tribal lands. Broadband deployment in the whole of the U.S. stands at about 65 percent, the Federal Communications Commission found a few years ago, but on tribal lands the official rate is just 10 percent, with "anecdotal evidence suggest[ing] that actual usage rates may be as low as 5 to 8 percent."

One somewhat bright sign in all this, as is the case in so many challenged communities, is libraries. Where solid Internet connections are difficult to come by, public libraries often are a lifesaver. A new report from the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries, and Museums finds that some 89 percent of tribal libraries are providing some kind of public Internet access, which compares moderately well with the 100 percent of all public libraries in the United States that do so.

Still, dig a bit into the data, and problems re-emerge. Even if tribal libraries are providing Internet connectivity, they are lagging behind their non-tribal counterparts in providing the tools to make use of it and the services that ride on top of it, as the chart above shows. "Tribal libraries," the report finds, "are less well equipped than mainstream public libraries to help their communities meet essential digital literacy, digital inclusion, and digital citizenship goals."

Limit the comparison to just other rural libraries, and tribal libraries still lag. While some 98 percent of rural libraries, for example, offer access to electronic databases such as academic journal archives, just 46 percent of tribal libraries do.

The study is a reminder that 'being online' isn't a binary state, something that often gets overlooked in our broadband data.


Nancy Scola is a reporter who covers the intersections of technology and public policy, politics, and governance.
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