Digitally Divided

Being without the internet is a luxury when on vacation - but a reminder of how complicated life with limited access would be.
May 28, 2015
There’s nothing like being without the internet for a few days to realize how much I don’t miss it, at least occasionally. But it also makes me realize how much I assume when I have regular access.
I’ve been vacationing in parts of the country where our cell phones can’t reach a signal. It’s a good time to relax, listen to the wind in the trees, take long walks with no particular destination in mind, but you can’t pick up the latest news (even radio can be spotty), keep your email clutter cut down to size, or check tomorrow’s weather, all things that I take for granted normally.
It’s a good time to remember how many of the people for whom we plan our libraries don’t have easy access to the internet. According to a Pew Internet survey, one in five Americans have limited or no broadband access at home other than through their phones. Of those who rely on their phones for internet access, half say they reach data plan limits or sometimes have to drop the service entirely because they can’t afford it. There are both age and income dimensions at play. Young people and low-income Americans are more likely to depend on cell phones for internet access. People of color – a growing portion of our student body – are three times as likely as whites to rely on cell phones, with 12 percent of African Americans and 13 percent of Latinos in this category compared to four percent of whites.
Librarians are thinking about ways to make their websites and electronic resources more mobile-ready. It’s one thing to redesign the library’s site along responsive design principles. It’s another to imagine what it’s like to navigate a system when you’re (by default) all thumbs. How much harder is it for a cell-phone-dependent user to access their library account than for someone using a laptop? Our system requires typing in a 14-digit number to identify yourself. I don’t know about you, but my fingers feel awfully fat when typing in a numerical string that long, and I rarely get it right the first time. Then we have to think about our dozens of electronic resources. Vendors are working on making their search platforms mobile-ready, but it’s not a simple problem. What is the experience of students who don’t have easy access to the internet who need to read a 35-page article from JSTOR for class using a phone? Can they read the ebooks the library has licensed? These scholarly and technical collections tend to be far less mobile-friendly than books bought through Amazon or downloaded from the public library. Do we think about how frustrating it might be for people on a tight data plan to navigate page after page to find what they need?
While traveling, I had to adjust to having limited access – climbing a hill to see if I can coax a signal out of my phone, or hiking a few miles to a corner store that might let me use their wifi. This was optional for me – I was on vacation! – but it’s a daily struggle for some of our students who either have no broadband at home or have to share an aged computer with the rest of the family or, perhaps, need to plan their online time around libraries which have cut their hours.
We're not the only ones thinking about mobile-ready search. Last month, Google started shaping their search results around mobile-friendly sites. Those that aren’t now get demoted in search results. (Such is the power of a near-monopoly: they can choose their “ranking signals.” They have also decided that web sites ought to be secure, so demote sites that don’t use secure certificates, which currently are complex to manage and can cost a fair bit. Luckily, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the University of Michigan, and a number of tech organizations are working on an easy and affordable solution that should roll out this summer.) The rise of mobile is on display at Wattpad, a site that 40 million members use for sharing and commenting on fan fiction and other texts – many of them composed on cell phones using their app. Most of the site’s traffic (85 percent!) is through mobile devices, and over 100,000 stories are uploaded daily. Maybe someday we will all be reading and writing using small screens.
But simply being mobile-friendly doesn’t solve the problem of limited access. Public librarians have been doing what they can to cross the digital divide for years. In addition to providing tech support for a wave of middle-class patron with new tablets and e-readers in the days following every Christmas, they help people with limited computer experience and no internet access fill out government forms or employment applications – increasingly only available online.

It’s a divide that I will try to bear in mind, having had just a small taste of what it’s like to rely on spotty cell phone service as my connection to the world online. Which increasingly in our connected lives is the world.
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