Digital poverty, inclusion, and the role of research libraries: A cross-sector international symposium
This symposium takes a holistic, cross-sector, and international look at the issues of digital poverty and exclusion, and the role of society, higher-education, libraries, and research libraries in particular, in combating these challenges.
The scale of the challenge
Digital poverty has existed since the advent of digital technology and long-standing inequalities have existed in relation to access to digital devices, the availability of stable (or any) internet connections, and in the levels of digital confidence and skill of large cross-sections of society. Although long standing, these issues have been brought into sharp focus during the Covid-19 pandemic and the physical closure of workplaces, public institutions, and places of learning.
In 2018, 10% of the UK population were recorded as internet ‘non-users’, who had either never used it or had not accessed the internet in the previous three months, with significant variations in terms of demography, ethnic background, and geography (UK ONS, Exploring the UK’s digital divide, March 2019). The same report revealed that 4.3 million people across the UK did not have basic digital skills, and 11.3 million people had very few basic digital skills. The recent experience of Covid-19 has added to a growing body of research and literature regarding the experience and impact of digital poverty on learning, research, and community engagement. Within higher education, an Office for Students study (September 2020) cited that 52% of UK students’ learning was impacted by slow/poor Wi-Fi and that 18% lack access to a laptop/computer/tablet. Repeated periods of national lockdown have exposed the inequality and fragility of digital access to materials, collections, and services.
Levelling up and challenging the digital divide within the UK and beyond
Many organisations are working to address the digital divide. The Good Things Foundation has recently published a blueprint for a 100% digital included UK, highlighting the need for infrastructure, skills, and collective action. Key stakeholders across the higher-education sector, including Universities UK, have recently written to UK government ministers highlighting the urgent need for action around digital poverty amongst UK students and the impact that this is having on learning and life chances (Letter to ministers, 15 January 2021). Colleagues within Arts Council England, amongst other organisations, have championed the role of public libraries as providing essential digital infrastructure within communities, whereas academic research is highlighting the need for a holistic approach to digital inclusion within the wider communal fabric of society. Finally, RLUK’s digital shift manifesto has set out a vision for research libraries around the creation of physically and digitally inclusive spaces, the need to develop digital skills, and has highlighted the impact of the digital divide within research libraries during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic.
These challenges are not unique to the UK, and a lot can be learnt from colleagues elsewhere, particularly in the United States, where valuable and long-standing work has been undertaken to challenge digital inequality.
- Catherine Mills, Head of Digital Social Inclusion, The Good Things Foundation
- Hannah Holmes, Research Associate, Centre for Planning and Housing Research, University of Cambridge
- Christopher Hale, Director of Policy, Universities UK
- Sue Williamson, Director of Libraries, Arts Council England
- Trevor Dawes, Vice Provost for Libraries and Museums and May Morris University Librarian, University of Delaware
- Joe Lucia, Dean of Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania