Don’t Write Off ALA’s Work on Digital Literacy and the FCC Before Reading This

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.

OITP supported the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Order (pdf) voted on by the Commission that will reform the Lifeline program.

“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.

Tinkerbell 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.


15 thoughts on “Don’t Write Off ALA’s Work on Digital Literacy and the FCC Before Reading This

  1. Sadly, my choice was made before I even saw this whole kerfluffle blow up: I am not renewing my ALA membership. The organization does seem to spend most of it’s time closing the barn door behind the horses in these matters; the ALA is trying to be everything to everybody and I don’t see it providing actual leadership in these issues (no offense to anyone personally, I’m talking at the organizational level). To me, the fact that the FCC would even conceive of a Digital Literacy Corps in the first place is a sign that the ALA has simply not been where it needs to be for the last ten years.

    I could be wrong; I hope I am and hope ALA members who step forward to man the helm manage to change the course.


    1. Sadly I see this sort of response as cutting off your nose to spite your face. What do you think will happen when you quit paying dues? That ALA will notice and change? That they’ll cease to exist? Who will advocate for us then?


  2. Like you, I am not one for unjustified whining or complaining. However, I’m also someone who believes in thoughtful, constructive dialogue rather than blind trust that all will be OK if we all just keep “chipping away” rather than asking how we could we work toward a goal in a smarter, more strategic manner.

    If I had not been a member of the Digital Task Force or participated in ALA on other committees for the last three years, then I would say I absolutely have no right to question ALA’s role or to question if I should continue to invest time, my own money, and energy. If I had not an effort to participate and honor my commitments, then I would absolutely not complain. But I have done all of these things, and consequently, I feel I have every right to question and challenge the efforts (and subsequent results of that action) of my organization. And when the organization’s efforts fail to result any effective change or to genuinely elevate the profession, particularly when the profession is increasingly being marginalized and segments of it are in real peril due to complex and complicated factors, then I think every member is justified in asking if they are getting a return on his or her investment of time, energy, service, and money.

    Questioning the effectiveness of an organization is not mean-spirited or counterproductive; in fact, I think without constructive criticism, an organization cannot evolve and be responsive to its members. Our profession is in crisis, and we can no longer afford to accept that we should just be patient and be content with slow, painstaking effort that is marginally effective. I think it is time that we have an honest conversation about the realities our profession is facing and to acknowledge conventional approaches to advocacy are no longer effective. Is ALA willing to admit this reality and to be open to new approaches? Are formal committees the best mode in this day and age for getting the work of the organization done? I’m not sure.

    In reference to what ALA/OITP actually did related to this issue, yes, ALA/OITP communicated with the FCC and shared what they thought was appropriate, but did they campaign aggressively to utilize LIBRARIANS as the digital literacy corps? Did they assert the importance of school libraries and librarians in the effort to address digital literacy education? Very little language is reflected to those points in the documents I’ve seen as a committee member, in your post, or in the public press releases.

    I also do not feel the failure of individuals or groups in ALA to understand the wishes of members lies at the feet of membership. I’ve seen firsthand ALA leadership ignore, dismiss, or gloss over member opinions/concerns, especially if they don’t fit a certain agenda or organizational stance on an issue. After you realize your concerns and ideas aren’t really being heard, you can’t help but wonder why you continue to invest your time in that space.

    I realize that professional organizations as large as ALA face challenges in addressing these weighty concerns. However, if my organization isn’t getting the job done, then I’d be naive if I failed to ask “why?” Why should I be expected to continue to settle for crumbs of action and tired cliches? As budgets are cut and responsibilities increase for librarians across all fields of the profession, how can we not ask if it’s worth continuing to give our time, energy, service, and money to ALA, or if we should begin looking to participate in other groups/communities/organizations where our involvement will leverage more impact for our profession and the work we do?


    1. Buffy I’m not questioning your right to critize ALA or question the work in general. I’ve certainly wondered about it’s work in other areas. However, as a fellow member of the task force I would have expected to be aware of your discontent with OITP’s dealings with the FCC before reading a post where you wonder publicly if we’ve all wasted our time.

      Did you ask your questions to Larra and Marijke? We discussed the FCC several times on calls over the last year. Did you share your concerns and offer suggestions? I know I didn’t see any emails or comments from you during conference calls but perhaps I wasn’t cc’d on them.

      I do think that fellow task force members should have been afforded the courtesy of communication before your discontent became so extreme as to publicly denounce us. I realize I can’t speak for the other members but I for one was unaware of them and I have participated in most of the calls, read all the emails and been present for the in person meetings.

      I do disagree with you on blaming ALA for the FCC’s failures. We cannot force anyone to acknowledge or recognize I work. I do not think that one New York Times article signals success or failure either way.

      No decision as been made by the FCC regarding the funding or the digital literacy corps at this time. I have a sincere question for you – what more would you like ALA to do? Not in generalities but in specifics. For example when you say “campaign aggressively” what does that mean?


      1. Bobbi, it’s unfortunate that my efforts to respond to your concerns in a constructive manner have been taken personally by you and that you misinterpreted my blog post as a “denouncement” of the task force. The post was questioning if the organization, ALA, really understood the actual day to day work public and school librarians are doing. The six points you quoted asserted by ALA do not mention librarians, nor is there any mention of school libraries or school librarians. Those are two glaring omissions in my book.

        If you have specific questions about my involvement and dialogue on the task force, I’m more than happy to discuss it with you directly. I have voiced my concerns in meetings I was able to attend; I would have attended more of the virtual meetings had they not been at a time outside of the school day when I am working with students since I rarely can afford the luxury of an hour long conference call because of limited staffing.

        Regarding the assignment of blame/failure–we can agree to disagree. I’m not inclined to continue the same circular arguments on that front. As far as the FCC issue goes, it would have been helpful for ALA (all divisions to whom this issue mattered–not just ALA Washington/OITP) to have included language that specifically challenged the FCC’s plan for the digital literacy corps and to have asserted that librarians would have been a better target for that funding the FCC was willing to invest in the effort.
        I may be wrong, but my guess is that others upset about this issue would like a more specific explanation as to why “librarians” are largely absent from the language of the documentation that has been provided by ALA.

        As far as membership goes, that is a very personal decision, especially as economic hardships force many people to think more critically about where they want to invest their time and money. I can’t speak for other areas of librarianship, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see how horribly eroded school librarianship has become; while the advocacy efforts of ALA may have been noble and well-intended, it’s obvious they have not been effective in mitigating this intense deterioration. It may be we are now in a time in which we should no longer look to ALA but instead, approach advocacy more strategically through local efforts and coalitions formed with other agencies that may prove to be more effective in this new economy.


        1. You’re right we are going to have to agree to disagree. You want to place blame on ALA as a whole over all, as if it isn’t made up of individuals, many of whom are volunteers and divisions and internet groups with every different interests. I can’t speak for AASL which I assume you’re a member of but I can speak for my involvement in the Task Force.

          You state – “The six points you quoted asserted by ALA do not mention librarians, nor is there any mention of school libraries or school librarians. ”

          Those six points are part of a larger document which does in fact mention school libraries. Unfortunately I have to point out that that document was sent to Task Force members via email for comment before it was submitted. I hate to do this but did you comment? Did you stress the importance of school libraries when you had the opportunity? If so and you were ignored I apologize right now, publicly. But if not, as I’ve pointed out, ALA is made up of US.

          You state : ” As far as the FCC issue goes, it would have been helpful for ALA (all divisions to whom this issue mattered–not just ALA Washington/OITP) to have included language that specifically challenged the FCC’s plan for the digital literacy corps and to have asserted that librarians would have been a better target for that funding the FCC was willing to invest in the effort.”

          Where exactly should that language have been? In what document?

          I’m frustrated by vague “should”s being thrown about (not just by you) which indicate the people do not understand the procedures and processes. It is not as if ALA can simply walk into the FCC Chairman’s office and demand his attention and time and FORCE him to recognize the importance of libraries.

          I understand that school librarians are afraid for their future, and I know that fear causes strong emotions. One article in the Times doesn’t make something true or finished.

          As a current member of the Task Force (I’m assuming you haven’t stepped down) you have the opportunity to ensure that the Task Force and OITP hear you and through that make a difference with the FCC’s decision, please take that opportunity and use it. I encourage you to focus your energy on the opportunities open to you right now for making a difference.


  3. Bobbi, Thank you for this. I read your post carefully – you quoted, you linked extensively, you laid it out logically & brilliantly. There’s always room for different opinions but I really appreciate your clearly stated facts & information. But then, I’m an annoyingly optimistic Pollyanna type!
    Let’s work together for change & not be so ready to throw in the towel too soon. My 2 cents.


  4. As a medical librarian who has developed health information outreach projects since 1993, I’ve come to appreciate the role AmeriCorps members can play by working with library partners and community service organizations to provide training and services for underserved populations. Instead of another program, why not increase funding for AmeriCorps programs and have them work with librarians to develop digital literacy programs? Look to the Medical Library Association’s Consumer Health Information certificate program as a model for training the trainers and many of the NNLM (National Network/Libraries of Medicine, consumer health project awards for program ideas.
    Since 2001 I’ve worked on Hmong Health Education Network ( projects, with funding from NLM, NN/LM the Refugee Health Information Network ( In presentations, I always stress the value of working with multiple community agencies. See for an older article on this project.
    Since 2006, a Hmong member of the Wausau area AmeriCorps team has had a dual role at the Hmong association: working on our health information project and also helping with the after school program for new refugee youth. Last year, the Hmong association and Marathon County Library branches were partners in a broadband grant that provided wifi connections at all branches (mostly rural), the Hmong association and Neighbor’s Place, a community center that provides literacy training, food pantry and other services. The grant provided a training lab for Neighbor’s Place and a traveling lab for the other sites. Neighbor’s Place also utilizes AmeriCorps volunteers, as well as after school programs, Boys and Girls Club and other community service organizations. AmeriCorps is a great program that could use more funding, along with a more specific goals regarding literacy, including digital and health information literacy. We could not have accomplished as much as we have without AmeriCorps volunteers, who are paid much less than other personnel. These volunteers can be seen as potential recruits for our profession, especially when they see librarians leading these effort.
    As for ALA, I’ve had to focus my limited resources on MLA, but have belonged to ALA/ACRL in the past, and the Wisconsin Library association for many years. For a better future for librarians, we need to break down walls between the organizations so that all types of librarians can work together at all levels. While easiest at the local level, we need to be united when lobbying for funding (something that is happening, but not enough). In the meantime, we need to keep good projects going. Thanks for this blog post, which gives me new ideas for sustaining the goals of Recent funding has not been enough to cover expenses for partners as well my time and expense.


    1. “ Instead of another program, why not increase funding for AmeriCorps programs and have them work with librarians to develop digital literacy programs?”

      Why not instead of giving money to another agency, give money to libraries to address the concerns of the underserved?

      I’m all for working with other agencies. Libraries do that all the time. But we aren’t talking about refugees from Thailand this is very different issue.

      “AmeriCorps is a great program that could use more funding, along with a more specific goals regarding literacy, including digital and health information literacy.”

      Libraries have great programs regarding literacy, including digital and health information literacy as well. The libraries would love to have enough money to hire and train people in their own communities.

      “We could not have accomplished as much as we have without AmeriCorps volunteers, who are paid much less than other personnel.”

      That is the real point, spread literacy using library spaces if need be, just don’t more library staff?

      “These volunteers can be seen as potential recruits for our profession, especially when they see librarians leading these effort.”

      We aren’t short of recruits, we are short of jobs.

      “ For a better future for librarians, we need to break down walls between the organizations so that all types of librarians can work together at all levels.”

      Without walls we’d have a blob. And I’d like to stress that libraries already work with lots of organizations.

      I’m not conceptually against the ideals of what a digital corps could achieve and help with, I just don’t see why we can’t work through libraries to address the concerns in question instead of creating another agency. I think I’d be on board if that could clearly be explained.

      I hope I didn’t sound too grumpy.


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