As a librarian in Prince George’s County, I often see people struggle on the wrong side of the digital divide.
The term “digital divide” describes the gap in our society between the computer haves and have-nots, between people who have apps on their smartphones to order lattes and those who have never sent an e-mail. The digital divide can seem to be a secondary issue to hunger, poverty, homelessness and long-term unemployment, but at the base of those problems are limited access to computers and a lack of computer skills.
In our nation’s public libraries, especially urban libraries, students download e-books to their smartphones while sitting next to someone learning to use a mouse.
The hardest part of my job is helping people fill out online employment applications. For people with limited computer skills, online applications constitute one of the biggest obstacles to employment, even for fast-food jobs paying a few dollars above minimum wage. My colleagues and I often spend hours helping one person fill out an online application that has poorly written instructions or a feature that doesn’t work no matter how you enter the data.
A typical case: A customer in our library was filling out an online application to become a cashier for a drugstore chain. The application asked her to enter dates of employment for her most recent job and contained two boxes for the month and four boxes for the year. Since she ended her last job in September, she kept entering “09” for the month, but the application was rejected. She tried to leave the box empty, but the application was rejected again. Finally, another librarian, who had been working with the woman intermittently for more than an hour, suggested entering a dash. Success!
No one should have to spend hours on dysfunctional Web sites to find an entry-level job. How many unemployed people have thrown up their hands in despair and joined the ranks of the long-term unemployed? And how many job hunters can the library assist, when staff and budget cuts are a constant threat?
Recent studies suggest that the digital illiteracy is not insignificant in scope. A study by the Census Bureau found that 21 percent of households report no Internet access, at home or elsewhere.
In 2014, President Obama called for a concerted effort to reduce long-term unemployment. A first step should be to simplify online job applications. The U.S. government already has begun simplifying its forms and questionnaires.
As a nation, we have to do more to make computers available to all people. While public libraries are one part of it, local librarians can’t do it all. The government should increase grants to schools, libraries and community centers, especially in low-income and economically depressed areas. Community colleges could make some computers available to the public and offer free computer classes to adults, as Prince George’s County Memorial Library System does.
And public libraries must do a better job of promoting computers and digital literacy. The people in the 25 million households without Internet access may not know they can get online at their local library. Books are important, but computers are necessary. For people without Internet access at home, libraries fill the gap.
The writer lives in Silver Spring.