In my years working as a librarian in the Digital Branch at the Kansas City Public Library, one thing I witnessed over and over again was the need to pair digital access with teaching digital literacy. It didn’t do any good to give patrons access to tools they didn’t know how to use. People need to develop digital literacy in order to use the tools we provide access to.
To resort to metaphor:
When someone is lost, it doesn’t help to hand them a map if they don’t know how to read it.
[T]he study was to investigate the effects of providing books and digital access in libraries to underserved children and families. The results ran counter to every hoped-for outcome: simply providing access to digital tools to underserved children could actually have deleterious effects, if there was no participation by parents. The children in that study did significantly worse on tests of literacy than other children did, and the disparities between groups increased after technological devices were introduced. … This study highlights a pivotal and persistent mistake in the use of digital technology for education. The positive effects of digital learning cannot be reduced to issues of access or exposure.
It actually does harm to provide access without guidance. It’s worse than simply not helping. It would be less harmful to not provide access at all.
I have a friend who’s currently in school to earn an MLIS. They asked me recently if my library offers “information literacy guidance to your patrons? Like any sort of program to help gauge legit info from ‘fake news?'”
My answer turned out to be a bit more involved than I expected. Turns out, I have thoughts about this. I can’t say my thoughts are particularly well sorted at this point but I think they’re worth sharing. Here’s a slightly edited and expanded version of the answer I sent my friend:
My library doesn’t currently do any dedicated programming on this kind of information literacy, although we help guide people when they come to us with questions. We provide access to resources that teach information literacy skills and direct patrons to these resources when we see a need. I know a lot of libraries are exploring different ways to handle this issue and some are offering programming. My library is talking about the idea.
My personal perspective on it: It’s turning out to be more complex than I thought upon first glance.
I picked up this book expecting an exploration of the neuroscience and physiology of the effects of reading on the brain, and how reading in print and digital formats differ. I got that, and so much more.
Wolf presents a balanced account of the different effects of different mediums, both negative and positive, and how we might use this knowledge to do better for our children and ourselves. It’s a welcome perspective.
It’s also a deeply humanist and moral meditation of the capacities of the human mind and the importance of storytelling. It’s a clarion call to fulfill the responsibility we all bear toward our fellow human beings and to the future. This is a work of tremendous empathy and passion.
It may well be one of the most important works of our age.
Normally, we talk about diverse books in terms of the ethnicity and cultures of characters, authors, and story traditions. What speaks to me about the two articles linked above is the call to increase the diversity of the genres I read. The call to “read outside [my] own taste and interest” (from Bookriot), to read things I dislike or that scare me to try (as per the RA for All post).
I spoke to a gentleman recently about the efforts of public libraries to bridge the Digital Divide, both in terms of offering broadband internet access to those who otherwise don’t have it, and teaching digital and information literacy to those who need it.
This gentleman told me that he thinks the internet is useless. He’s been online, tried the social media thing, wandered around the web, and he sees no value in any of it. He concluded that it’s all just a flood of unreliable, unverified information, and people being mean and wasting time. He believes that we’d all be better off without it.
He told me that he can’t understand why we work so hard to provide access to something that people don’t need and shouldn’t be using in the first place. I don’t believe this man was intentionally exclusionary or prejudiced—he sincerely couldn’t understand why anyone would value something which, to him, is so obviously value-less.
Rather than argue with this gentleman’s opinions regarding the supposed value of the internet, I responded:
Information professionals like to crow that we’re living in a Golden Age of Information. More information is available to more people than ever before in history, and it’s easier to access than ever.
The standard response is to point out that there’s more bad information than ever before. A whole lot of the information currently circulating around out there isn’t reliable.
This is true. But it’s also true that there’s more good information available to us than ever before, too. Just as bad information has increased, good information has increased alongside. I believe this firmly and I’ll stand by this statement.
But I’m not sure if the increase in good information is keeping pace with the increase in bad. It may be the proportion of good-to-bad has become more unbalanced. It may be that good information is being increasingly overwhelmed by the bad.
I have a social media friend—you know the type: you’re barely even acquaintances in real life but you have enough mutual friends to be friends online. We’ve been social media friends for some years now.
For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been watching her life transformed by the power of reading. That sounds cheesy and dramatic, I know, but it’s literally true.
My social media friend is currently in her early 30s. She’s Hispanic Latina, born into a fairly poor family, raised in a fairly poor neighborhood, with all the disadvantages inherent to such a background in this country. She had her first child when she was still in high school and married the father when she turned 18. They had a couple more kids over the next few years. She didn’t go to college. She went straight from high school to being a working mother, raising her children and holding down a series of part-time, low skilled, hourly wage jobs. A few years ago, she and her husband got divorced, so she took her kids and moved back in with her parents.
She decided to change the course of her life and she enrolled in a community college to get a degree in nursing. This is where her current transformation begins…
It’s de rigueur nowadays for people to criticize libraries for being “too much about books.” The idea being that too many libraries are still stuck in the past, in outmoded service models, and failing to adapt to new technologies, trends, etc.
There is some truth in the criticism—although I also find that too many of these critics fail to be critical enough of new trends and tend too often to promote faddishness.
It makes me want to ask the obvious question:
What’s wrong with libraries being about books?
Books mean reading. Books are still the best, most valuable tool of a reading life. This makes books timelessly important—beyond fads, more enduring than ever-changing technology.
Books matter. Still and always. Because reading matters.