About two weeks ago there was an article in the New York Times titled Wasting Time Is New Divide in Digital Era which caused an outcry among librarians, and there has been a whirlwind of online activity. Much of what is in that article was no surprise to me thanks to my interest in digital literacy, my service on the Digital Literacy Task Force and the fact that I’ve been following the FCC’s focus, or lack thereof, on digital literacy since the National Broadband Plan was released in March of 2010. I have also been publicly expressing concern over the FCC‘s acknowledge (or lack thereof) the role that libraries (all types) play in digital literacy instruction for years. Unfortunately there was also some misinformation in that article and some misinterpretation that has spread pretty widely.
I want to provide the background for those who haven’t been following as closely as I, and (hopefully) add some clarification and insight to the discussion. Digital literacy and libraries is an important issue and we need to be aware of what is happening around us, so I’m glad others are paying attention. This post is not intended as a criticism of any one person but rather an attempt to add information to the discussion.
Back to the Times article – which states:
The new divide is such a cause of concern for the Federal Communications Commission that it is considering a proposal to spend $200 million to create a digital literacy corps. This group of hundreds, even thousands, of trainers would fan out to schools and libraries to teach productive uses of computers for parents, students and job seekers.
Separately, the commission will help send digital literacy trainers this fall to organizations like the Boys & Girls Clubs, the League of United Latin American Citizens, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Some of the financial support for this program, part of a broader initiative called Connect2Compete, comes from private companies like Best Buy and Microsoft.
What the article does not mention is the role that all libraries are currently playing in digital literacy issues, and it’s a big one! Here’s the thing we don’t know what the person at the FCC who talked with the Times reported said that didn’t make the cut. Having been interviewed myself by the Times and NPR in the past (including one time that anything I said failed to make the final cut after spending almost an hour on the phone with the reporter) I know a great deal can be left out. I also know that the FCC recognizes the role that libraries play (more on this later).
This article was shared and discussed on the ALA Council listserv and it was discussed among the Digital Literacy Task Force (DLTF) members (I’m one of them). The DLTF responded with two blog posts, the first ALA Wastes No Time Our-Work-on-Digital-Literacy by Larra Clark and Marijke Visser in which they remind ALA members that:
- ALA has been working with the FCC since the broadband plan was announced
- That though the National Broadband Plan makes reference to a Digital Literacy Corps similar to the Americorps model such a corps is NOT actively being pursued (despite what the Times article says)
- “ALA submitted comments to the FCC’s Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (FNPRM) on a proposal to fund digital literacy training through libraries and schools using savings realized from Lifeline program reforms. The FCC proposes to fund formal digital literacy training at $50 million per year over four years. This proceeding is ongoing, though the comment period is closed.”
- “ALA continues to advocate for libraries in this proceeding, knowing that libraries offer a formidable “triple play” of assets to support learners in gaining the digital skills necessary to thrive online.”
The Times article was also shared across libraryland and some bloggers took issue with it including Fran Bullington who wrote Calling School Librarians to Action! Another Attempt to Undermine Our Jobs which Joyce Valenza reposted on Never ending Search. Fran states
Looks like the FCC has no idea that our schools have a ready-made “digital literacy corps” in place.
Chairman Julius Genachowski was quoted in the article. He recognizes the importance of digital literacy, but he is ill-informed. He does not know that there are already trained professionals in many schools who work, against great odds at times, to train our students and who volunteer to teach parents these skills.
Chairman Genachowski is aware of libraries and the role they play – he mentions them several times, and mentions IMLS, in his October 2011 remarks on broadband adoption. In fact I blogged about this at the time because I was so happy to see the acknowledgement. Here are some of his remarks
During the day, libraries have become job centers and librarians career counselors – and after school a place where many students go to do homework online. Last year, more than 30 million Americans used library connections to seek and apply for jobs, and 12 million children used them to do homework. Millions of others are using library connections for health information. Many – but not enough – of America’s 16,000 public libraries have become vital centers for digital
Librarians are helping meet some of the vast need — and I applaud them. But according to a recent Gates Foundation-funded survey, only 38% of all libraries offer a basic digital literacy class. In rural areas, in places like West Virginia, it’s only 25% of libraries. That’s a big missed opportunity. We should aim to double those numbers.
Here are a couple of other speeches where he mentions them. Is this the resounding high praise and acknowledgement that we would like (and deserve)? No. There is absolutely more work to be done. Which is part of why I’m proud to serve on the Digital Literacy Task Force. Are the Task Force and ALA moving at the lightening speed we’d all prefer in the digital age? Unfortunately not, often due to no fault of their own. But they ARE working on these issues.
In post the next day Fran admits she hadn’t heard of the Digital Literacy Corps before and in her June 6th post she makes two points (emphasis added by me). First about the misinformation of the article
I was informed today that Matt Richtel, author of the article and a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, provided us with misinformation. The digital literacy corps referred to in his article has NO money associated with it.
Second how important it is that we communicate well about important issues (again emphasis added by me)
Deb Logan, one of the co-founders of Act4SL, contacted me yesterday and has given me permission to share part of her email here: “The great news is that people are inspired to action… In all advocacy efforts, speaking up is important, but it is critical to not put people on the defensive…Communications need to be persistent, professional, positive and polite…This situation, in particular, is a great opportunity to position ourselves as part of the solution.”
One of the DLTF members Pat Ball wrote a response to the original Times piece – The Next Digital Divide: Productive Access in which she points out
The article asserts that in many disadvantaged communities around the country that wasting time is considered to be the new digital divide. No longer is access alone considered to be enough. One should be able to fully participate in a digital world through productive access and not just as a passive consumer of information and entertainment.
I do have to point out that 100 million Americans are without home broadband access so the digital divide – the technology access aspect – is a long way from being closed no matter what the Times might imply.
Today’s Library Journal article – Proposed ‘Digital Literacy Corps’ will not Usurp School Librarians’ Role, Explains FCC which attempted to add some clarification but seems to have had the opposite effect in some. I agree with much of what Buffy has to say about the role of all libraries and digital literacy. However I am concerned with her last statements and as a member of the Task Force she belongs to I’d like to try to respond to them. The first one
I read these words and wonder if my service on the ALA/OITP Digital Literacy Task Force has been in vain and why I’m paying hundreds of dollars of years to belong to an organization, ALA, that felt compelled to “quell”concerns. Clearly, ALA does not see that the arguments we’ve outlined as ones to take up with the FCC or to understand digital literacy is a component of libraries’ (school and public) to provide lifelong learning for our communities at their points of need. And what exactly WAS ALA’s role with the proposal if it wasn’t to encourage the FCC to do more than merely use libraries as physical space to provide training? Did ALA not speak up for its members and tout our expertise and the work we’re already doing that could be expanded with this funding?
It is my understanding that ALA has done exactly this. Not just with the formation of the Task Force over a year ago but with regular interaction with the FCC.
OITP part of a panel on “Understanding Current Adoption Efforts,” at the Federal Communications Bar Association continuing education course on “Developments in the Effort to Improve Broadband Adoption”
OITP filed comments (pdf) with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) supporting its proposal to advance broadband adoption by low-income people through digital literacy training in our nation’s public libraries and schools. After wide consultation with the library community, the ALA asserted six main points:
- Digital literacy is vital to ensuring equal opportunity in a knowledge economy;
- Public libraries are ideally positioned to support digital literacy training;
- Public libraries—even those now doing digital literacy programs—need additional resources to meet demand for digital literacy training;
- Any program designed to address digital literacy must have the flexibility to meet community needs and build library capacity;
- It is appropriate to use savings from the FCC’s Universal Service Fund Lifeline program reforms to support digital literacy training and broadband adoption for low-income people; and
- Funding for digital literacy training through libraries should be separate and distinct from the E-rate program and should be administered thusly.
“The Chairman today echoed the sentiment of librarians serving communities across the country when he said digital literacy training will help more Americans participate fully in our 21st century economy and society,” said Emily Sheketoff, Executive Director of the ALA’s Washington Office.
I could go on but here is a link to the District Dispatch blog searching for “FCC” You might also consider searching for “digital literacy” to see additional efforts.
While I know it can be frustrating to feel like we aren’t being heard it would be a mistake to assume that because the audience isn’t reacting the way we would like that no efforts are being made.
The second statement Ms. Hamilton makes that I’m concerned with:
The thousands of librarians who are the frontline at ground zero of efforts to provide services and instruction in many kinds of literacies to our communities are acutely aware of what the needs are in our communities and the possibilities for meeting those needs if given appropriate staffing to expand and exceed a vision for learning. To read these kinds of statements is to feel that yet another government agency, the FCC, fails to understand what we do in spite of our efforts to share our work. In spite of the spin to put a positive bent to this issue, I feel cannibalized and betrayed by our very own flagship professional organization, ALA ; I am rethinking if I want to continue to pay to belong to an organization that doesn’t seem to really understand the work we do or the intensity and complexity of issues those of us in the trenches of librarianship deal with on a daily basis and that are undermining the potential and promise of the profession.
I understand the frustration that libraries are not receiving the credit and attention we know they deserve. But I do not believe that the fault lies at ALA’s feet. After all isn’t ALA made up of US? If ALA doesn’t understand us isn’t the fault our own? ALA is not some omni-present, clairvoyant nursemaid. Back in February of 2011 in a post where I asked why readers loved or hated ALA I cited a post by Abby the Librarian (ALA is Not Your Mom)
…if you’re not getting what you want out of ALA (what is it that you want out of ALA, anyway?), the only way to change that is to get involved.
ALA is not your mom. ALA is not there to do your laundry and pick up your socks, metaphorically speaking. ALA exists to create a professional network for the sharing of ideas, the bettering of our profession, and the education of library staff. (Read the actual mission statement here.)
You know what is absolutely NOT helpful? People complaining about something and not doing anything to change it. ALA is what you make of it. If you don’t like it, get involved and change it.
I still feel the same way – you don’t like it? Do something to change it. Pay dues, volunteer, serve, honor your commitments, and show up. I do not believe abandoning ALA will improve the chances that libraries receive the full recognition they deserve. What might make a difference is getting involved, offering solutions or contributing in some way.
I also mentioned the contribute/critize post I wrote in 2011
At the end of the meeting, of the work day, of the day, of the year I what do I want? I want to share the amazing work others are doing, to help and be supportive, to help others feel good about themselves and their work and be successful. I want to share and I want to learn and I want to work with (not against) others to make libraryland and libraries better places.
I am proud to serve on the Digital Literacy Task Force, I am proud to work with Larra and Marijke and other task force members on digital literacy issues. I know the effort the OITP staff has put into communicating the value of libraries to the FCC and others.
It is important to remember there are no magic beans, you have to do the work. You have show up and put up to make change and progress happen. Sometimes that change and progress doesn’t happen as fast as we’d like or take the path we would prefer.
One of the discussions the task force has had repeatedly is how do we (the Task Force and librarians) ensure that others know our value. I have no doubt we’ll continue to have that conversation and work on that issue. Unfortunately not everyone recognizes libraries the way they should. Everyone has demands on their time and attention, everyone has their own agenda so even when we’re working as hard as we can to share our message we are not always being heard. We cannot control that. We cannot control who chooses to see our value. We can keep working, we can keep fighting the good fight.