Digital Shift Forum – Digital poverty, inclusion, and the role of research libraries

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RLUK’s Digital Shift Forum brings together colleagues from across the information, research, cultural and heritage communities, and third and commercial sectors, to discuss the future of the digital shift in collections, services, and audiences.

The series aims to promote cross-sector discussion and debate, to enable knowledge exchange, and inspire collaborative endeavour across sectors and communities, for the benefit of RLUK members and the wider research and information management communities.

The Digital Shift Forum is open to all, and you do not need to belong to an RLUK member institution to attend or participate.

Digital poverty, inclusion, and the role of research libraries: A cross-sector international symposium

19 May 2021, 14:00 – 16:00

The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed the seriousness and significance of digital poverty within societies. 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 by the physical closure of workplaces, public institutions, and places of learning associated with the pandemic.

In a sector that has made great strides in opening up collections, resources, and services through digital access, research libraries have an important role to play in combating digital poverty amongst their users, staff, and local communities. The challenges around doing so are deeper rooted and more significant than has sometimes been recognised. 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

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 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 in its work around its 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. 

A cross-sector and international conversation

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.

This symposium will take 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. It will include speakers from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives, and delegates are encouraged to share their own experiences and insights through a series of facilitated discussions.

This symposium comes alongside RLUK’s other activities to understand the impact of Covid-19 on the research library community, and the ways in which libraries can work collectively and collaboratively to mitigate these. It forms part of RLUK’s Digital Shift Forum, an open and inter-disciplinary forum for the sharing of ideas and experiences regarding the digital shift across the research and information landscapes.

This symposium will be chaired and facilitated by Kirsty Lingstadt, Head of Digital Library and Deputy Director of Libraries and Archives, University of Edinburgh, and Michelle Blake, Interim Director, Libraries and Archives, University of York. Both Kirsty and Michelle are members of RLUK’s Digital Shift working group.

Delegates should come to the session prepared to join a cross-sector and international conversation regarding the role of libraries, and research libraries in particular, as key players in combating digital poverty amongst our users, audiences, and communities, and the institutional and collective actions we can take to do so.

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