Digital inclusion has become a core part of the modern library’s role. It’s something that frontline staff are tasked with every day of the week – helping people with the skills, access, confidence and motivation to go online and better manage their lives. Digital inclusion amounts to both an economic issue, according to recent Government digital strategy, and a social issue with huge implications for those living without it involving health, wellbeing and future prospects.
It was a great opportunity to share experiences of supporting digital inclusion at CILIP’s last PMLG (Public Mobile and Library Group) Conference in Southwark. Lorensbergs co-facilitated a workshop with Brent Libraries on Digital Literacy Skills for the Otherwise Disenfranchised. 20 library authorities were in attendance and we covered a lot of ground. Here’s some of the key areas discussed and ideas shared, with slides available for download at the end of the page.
There’s an array of skills needed to stay informed and participating in our rapidly changing digital world. However, some are much more commonly occurring to suggest there’s a core skillset required. These include both fundamental skills for getting tasks done online, and the ability to navigate and use specific online services.
Comparing what our library users are asking for help with resulted in a lot of overlap in experiences, such as help with Universal Credit, Universal Jobmatch, email and basic web searching skills. More information on these core skills are available in our blog here.
It’s a really useful exercise to compare notes on barriers experienced by users in acquiring digital skills or using online services. We compiled a fairly long list and it seems many barriers are hidden or not immediately obvious. Here goes for recounting all that were mentioned (listing alphabetically):
- Access to equipment
- Comfort zone
- eSafety concerns
- Information and supporting documents
- Lack of support
- Learning disabilities
- Library staff capacity
- Mental health
- Mobility (housebound)
- Physical disabilities
- Substance misuse
- Technical jargon
- Technology failures
- Time pressure
- Web design accessibility
Broadly speaking, this long list can be boiled down to four categories: the unaware, the uninterested, the unready, and the unable. This is a useful way of scoping it and is borrowed from Brent’s Libraries experiences which are discussed below.
Recognising the barriers to digital inclusion is just as important as understanding the skills, as it leads on to thinking practically about how to address such issues. This might include ideas about referral processes in libraries. It also relates to thinking creatively about new partnerships for reaching the digitally excluded and addressing their needs. We’re including some great examples on what’s been achieved in this regard by West Sussex and Hertfordshire Libraries.
Where confidence is the main issue, this is helped massively by the welcoming library environment. One library authority commented that simply giving people time to play around on a computer for a couple of hours can really help overcome their hesitation. But of course many need more structured help than this which weighs heavily on library resourcing. This leads us neatly to the next topic…
Organisation of Library Staff and Services to Address Needs and Barriers
How staff and resources are organised to help differs from library to library. To a large extent, the delivery of digital inclusion support is ad hoc. Our library research findings from last year show that 97% of libraries offer it in this form, believing it is either essential or important to provide it. So consensus is that ad hoc support is the most important form of help available.
However, more structured forms of support – group sessions, drop in surgeries and one to one sessions – also play an extremely important role. Firstly, these approaches help staff time and resources stretch further. Plus some formats are better suited to particular types of support, an obvious one being group sessions, for example, job clubs and silver surfer groups allow for mutual support. Meanwhile, one to one sessions can be reserved for tasks requiring an element of confidentiality.
Most importantly, organised sessions can incorporate clever ways of working with partners, such as the Tech and Tea sessions organised by Wandsworth Libraries and their charity partner CommuniTech, or the internet safety classes provided by Hertfordshire Libraries with charity partner Camphill Village Trust – more on this one below.
Staff rotas, triaging process and referrals were also areas where discussions developed further. During this part of the workshop concerns around staff training arose. This is hardly surprising since it’s difficult to keep on top of all digital changes after formal training and inductions have been given. With such relentless change, the answer is that training has to be ongoing to be effective. One library authority described how an hour is dedicated at the same time every week for the cross-training of staff, with digital matters high on the agenda. Another authority regularly asks their digital volunteers what questions they are being asked. Supporting materials are then created and distributed to help them tackle new areas encountered.
Referrals and Partnerships – Learning from Brent Libraries
With constraints on library resources it’s important to consider how we might extend our networks to provide greater support or structure more efficient practices.
This might involve simply signposting to other services, with good awareness of what they have to offer. But some library services go further with initiatives that organise around understanding the user and mobilising wider council services to help. Brent presented a case study on their customer access review initiative which included stakeholder engagement of internal departments such as Customer Services, Planning, Housing and Schools Admissions. It also encompassed external parties including Homelessness, Debt Advisory and Age UK.
It led to developing a vulnerability framework and mapping customer journeys to help recognise the best way to help each user. This work highlighted where help is fragmented and where customers are making multiple attempts to resolve their issues across different access channels.
Outcomes at Brent included better communication and closer working between teams, with roles and offer clarified. The importance of third party partnerships also became very clear. A communications campaign, training and briefings followed, with joint working to help unlock funding. Community hubs were an important part of the delivery model, with libraries having a clear role in providing assisted digital support.
Brent is a great example of how a library service in partnership with wider services and external agencies is addressing digital inclusion. Some other important case studies were also explored. Hertfordshire Libraries, who partnered with a local charity for adults with learning difficulties and the Good Things Foundation, has developed and delivered its own Internet Safety module for use in group classes.
West Sussex Libraries has undertaken a Digital Library Plus project which covers older people at risk of social isolation, job seekers, and adults with learning disabilities. It has boosted outreach work by adding a digital element to current referrals, involving use of ipads as part of home visits to the elderly, and supplying communication aids for use by local speech therapists. The extent of staff training to underpin and sustain this work is particularly impressive.
The Way Ahead
The role for libraries in supporting digital inclusion is so important while the factors for getting it right are complex and changing. Areas to address include staff capacity, organisation and training alongside when to signpost and when to refer; which partners to collaborate with and how; and volunteer recruitment and retention (more on this later – it’s a huge topic in itself!).
But one key area not yet highlighted is the importance of articulating the library’s offer, both to reach new users in need, but also to win support and funding. It’s useful to conclude this article on this point – the importance of finding time to publicise your good work in order to help it continue and grow. Not least, why not take a leaf out of Lewisham Libraries book and invite your local councillors along to your next Library IT class. All this work and it deserves to be recognised for the critical role it plays, with libraries needing their own support networks too.