10 June 2021
Oxford study calls for greater government support for public libraries to help bridge digital divide (full report availabe here)
Oxfordshire Libraries are facing significant challenges to meet the digital needs of their users, according to a new report from the 2020 Oxfordshire Inclusion Project. The report’s authors, from the University of Oxford, are calling for libraries to receive more resources from central government to plug the gap.
The new study examines the role of ‘digital helper volunteers’ in Oxfordshire Libraries before the pandemic and finds that volunteers are struggling to deal with the volume of requests for help with internet-related queries.
In their report, ‘Libraries on the front lines of the digital divide: The Oxfordshire Digital Inclusion project report’, Dr Kira Allmann, Dr Grant Blank and Ms Annique Wong, the Oxford researchers examine the role of libraries in peoples’ day to day lives and the type of support that people need from volunteer digital helpers. The researchers observed members of the public using free public computers and interviewed library staff and volunteers.
Lead author Kira Allmann (Centre for Socio-Legal Studies) said, “As a result of the government’s digitisation drive, people on the margins of society increasingly need to access their basic rights and perform basic life tasks online, but they are also the least likely to be online or to be digitally literate. Libraries across the UK have seen demand for digital help go through the roof and they’re struggling to service the digital needs of the public”.
The report finds that the majority of users pre-pandemic had an immediate digital need such as applying for a benefit or a new job, that triggers the visit to the library, rather than a desire to become more computer literate. Pre-pandemic, 80 digital helpers provided digital assistance across the county’s libraries, with many serving the central County Library. Digital helpers offered pre-booked sessions of 30 minutes each.
Oxfordshire Library Service also provides free Wi-Fi which enables customers to bring in their own devices to ask Digital Helpers for support with. Although the pandemic has suspended some of the library service’s digital services, including children’s digital learning events, code clubs and the 1-1 support of digital helper volunteers for users, the library service has been playing a key role during COVID by offering vital access to online services which were maintained through the winter lockdowns and provided a crucial service for the digitally excluded. Digital Helper volunteers are currently hoping to return when social distancing is relaxed.
Based on their interviews and observations of interactions with digital helpers and users across Oxfordshire libraries, the researchers set out a series of policy recommendations to help increase digital access across the county.
Four key recommendations include:
- Enhance Library Staff Skills, allowing staff to provide greater support for users and also Digital Helpers.
- Ensure wider recognition as to what Libraries deliver by increasing funding for digital support and recruiting more volunteers.
- Shift Focus from Digital Skills to Digital Wellbeing, allowing users to be made aware of other support they may need and where to find it.
- Increase Community Awareness and Outreach by partnering with local schools, community centres, GP surgeries and local charities.
The Oxford report also presents findings about the nature of digital needs observed in a library setting alongside findings about how libraries meet those needs. Those most likely to be excluded from digital services are the most likely to be accessing free library services to get online.
Key findings from Oxford report:
- Existing digital skills frameworks do not adequately account for the complexity of the digital world that digital novices experience
- People with limited digital access and skills are motivated to go online to reach specific goals, rather than develop digital literacy in general
- Digital divides in literacy exist for all ages (from children to adults) for different reasons
- Nearly a third of library computer users (31.3%) don’t have a smartphone
- Three in ten library computer users (30%) had no computer at home
- Nearly a fifth of users (19%) had no internet connection at home
- Over half of library computer users (58%) have low incomes of £20,000 or less
- Over half of users (51%) said they use library computers because they are convenient
- Nearly a third of users (31%) said they use library computers because the library is safe
- Most common request for help was printing documents (58% of users)
- Only 1% of users reported using e-government services such as paying council tax bills
Whilst the report focuses on digital access in Oxfordshire libraries, the authors believe there is an opportunity for lessons learnt in Oxfordshire to be rolled out to libraries across the country.
Grant Blank, co-author of the report and Departmental Lecturer, Oxford Internet Institute, said:
“Our findings from the Oxfordshire Digital Inclusion Project show that libraries continue to be trusted and safe spaces, with the public turning to libraries to provide digital assistance and access, especially as more services have gone ‘digital by default’. This demand will only increase nationally as we begin to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. Looking ahead we believe libraries can become the digital inclusion hubs of the future across the UK, bringing together social support and technological access under one roof”.
Adds Allmann: “We hope our report will provide policymakers and government officials holding the purse strings with useful insights into the role of libraries in this ‘digital by default’ world we now live in and offer them practical suggestions about how to improve digital help for the public as we try to close the digital divide”.
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Notes to editors
About the report
The Oxfordshire Digital Inclusion project report’ by Dr Kira Allmann, Dr Grant Blank and Ms Annique Wong is based on data gathered between 27 January 2020 and 5 June 2020. The report findings are drawn from survey data from library computer users in 44 Oxfordshire library branches. Researchers also carried out 19 interviews with library staff and volunteers. The report is peer reviewed by colleagues within the University of Oxford. It has received ethical review by the CUREC committee. The research is funded by the University of Oxford Knowledge Exchange Seed Fund.