“I need an e-mail address,” Margaret was a petite, bespectacled woman in roughly her sixties, and she was waiting for me at the library front desk. She carried several overstuffed supermarket bags with her, which she gripped in both fists and which billowed out at her sides in such a way as to make her slight frame appear both smaller and larger at the same time. “I got a letter from the Council in the mail.” She trundled through the bookshelves toward a computer desk, where she dropped the bags, letting them loll disobediently around our feet. “It says I need to look at the housing list online,” she explained breathlessly, taking the letter out to show me. “And I need to set up an account.”

She was right: the letter stated that from now on, she needed an online account to access council housing.

“So you’ll need an e-mail address to set up the council account,” I said.

“Yes,” she looked determined. 

“Have you ever used e-mail before?” I asked.

“No,” she said, hesitatingly.

“Ok, then,” I said, keeping my tone light and encouraging, trying not to betray the magnitude of the task ahead of us. We were miles away from setting up an account for council housing.

“Let’s log into the computer.”

She took out her library card and painstakingly typed the digits into the dialog box, one by one, with a single finger. “Ok, now just click the ‘Enter’ button,” I said.

“Oh I can never do this,” she said nervously, taking the mouse. In her hand, the mouse fidgeted and darted, the cursor barely hovering long enough on the screen for us to catch a glimpse of it before it vanished. She let go of the corded plastic dome like it had betrayed her – a wild thing she couldn’t tame, it tore away from her slightest touch.

“Can you…?”

I took the mouse and coaxed it easily over the ‘Enter’ button and clicked. The red writing flashed up: wrong pin entered.

We started again.

I joined the Oxfordshire Central Library as a 'digital helper' volunteer in October of 2018. I saw the post advertised on the library website, and I applied. I’ve spent years patiently helping family members install Skype and calmly explaining how Dropbox syncing works to senior academics, so I figured I would be pretty good at talking people through the basics of computers without losing my cool. And this was what I claimed to study, after all – the digital world. I believed everyone should have a right to it, and I wanted to be able to do something about that. So, I wound up at the library, helping people get online.

Since then, I’ve met a lot of Margarets. They’re old and young, they’re employed and unemployed, they’re regular library users and library novices, they’re affluent and poor (though, admittedly, they’re more often poor), they’re native and non-native English speakers, they’re defiantly resistant to technology and embarrassed to admit they don’t understand it. But they’re all confronted with a world that is rapidly digitising, and for one reason or another, they increasingly do not have the option of avoiding it. And they all come to the library.

This is where the inspiration for this project began, on one of the ‘front lines,’ as I’ve come to understand it, of the digital divide. Here, at the county library, staff and volunteers were dealing with a constant stream of requests for help. Even just a few hours a week at the front desk or a library computer terminal offered a window into the lived experience of digital exclusion. This wasn’t just a value-added undertaking, a community library adapting to the demands of the digital age; it was a rescue operation.    

In 2012, the UK Government began a widescale tranformation of citizen services based on a 'digital-by-default' strategy, which aimed to rapidly expand e-government and transfer many in-person services to online platforms, digitising everything from social welfare benefits (Universal Credit) to local parking passes. The initiative aimed to cut costs and make services more efficient, but in reality, the advantages of this pervasive digitisation have been realised unevenly, and many people without regular access to digital technology or digital literacy skills have been left behind.

But public libraries have stepped in to bridge the digital divide, and in 2017, Oxfordshire County libraries launched a 'digital helper' volunteer programme to help address the growing demand for digital assistance in the community. That same year, the Government issued a policy paper highlighting the importance of developing digital skills and citing libraries as “the ‘go-to’ provider of digital access, training and support for local communities.” But meanwhile, funding for libraries across the UK had dwindled, a casualty of harsh austerity measures. (Since 2010, over 800 libraries have closed across the UK.) And in Oxford, the ‘go-to’ provider of digital access was relying heavily on volunteer labour to provide essential digital support in the face of staff and funding cuts.

Still, libraries were rising to meet the demand for digital assistance – with an eclectic menu that included a stop-gap volunteer programme, a weekly tablet and smartphone crash course, and a drop-in digital literacy session provided by AgeUK. And people were taking advantage of these offerings, along with the basic access to free computers and Wifi that the library already provided.

“I’d like a Gmail account,” Margaret told me. Even for Margaret, ‘Google’ was a household name. Like ‘Dettol’ or ‘Kleenex,’ she trusted it.

So we tried to set up a Gmail account. It asked for a username. We tried several, as I explained that some of her suggestions had already been ‘taken.’ It asked for a password, which I made her write down. She wasn’t sure she would remember it. It required at least one capital letter and one number. “How do you make a capital?” she asked, looking at the keyboard. I made her write down how to do that, too.

It asked for her phone number. She typed in a landline. “It’ll have to be a mobile phone number, I’m afraid,” I said. “Do you have a mobile phone?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “Do I need one?” Without a mobile phone, she wouldn’t be able to ‘authenticate’ the account, which now requires two-factor verification.

“Ok," I said, sighing apologetically. I had been in this position with library customers before. “I’m afraid we won’t be able to set up a Gmail account for you. We won’t be able to get past this point.”

She looked a little crestfallen, but she didn’t have high expectations for e-mail, to be honest, having never received one before. I told her I’d try a different provider. 

The last time I set up an account for someone at the library, I had used Hotmail (Microsoft). But this time, it required a phone number. I tried Yahoo. Phone number again. I wouldn’t be able to help her this time, I said, apologizing. We had already long overrun her booked digital helping slot. If she wanted to rebook for the following week, I said I’d do some research and find a solution. “Ok,” she said. "But the deadline for registering online is the end of the week." So instead, I booked her in with another digital helper whose shift was the next day, hoping they would know something I didn’t – a creative workaround that would get Margaret her e-mail and let her set up an online housing account. 

This wasn't the first time I had seen library customers thwarted by two-factor verification. It was a common issue for people who came in asking for help with e-mail. The ones who already had e-mail accounts rarely remembered their passwords, or had left their phone with a friend, spouse, or child. The ones without e-mail accounts rarely had a phone topped up or readily accessible, if they had a phone at all. A security protocol, sure. But two-factor verifcation was also a filter on privilege; the door stayed locked if you couldn't afford the key.

Margaret gathered up her wayward shopping bags and rustled away, out of the library.

Did the library keep track of the digital help they were providing, I wondered? Did they know about Margaret and what she wanted? Did they follow up to find out what we needed to do to help her? And why we failed? In general, the answer was no. There wasn’t the time, or the staff. There was just too much need, too much to do in a library like that. But there were a lot of people, from staff to volunteers, who had anecdotal stories like mine – observations like the ones I made each week during my digital helping shift about the people who were relying on libraries to help them perform basic tasks in a digitising world.

If we want to understand digital inclusion, we need to understand people like Margaret. And we need to better understand the role libraries are already playing to give them the simple access and skills they need in our digital-by-default society. The Oxfordshire Digital Inclusion Project emerged out of this desire to collect data on the digital assistance Oxford libraries provide, to generate strategies for improving it, and to make data-driven policy recommendations on how to better resource these frontline digital inclusion services. Together with my co-investigator, Dr Grant Blank (Oxford Internet Institute), and the Oxfordshire Libraries, we determined to collect interviews with staff and volunteers, surveys of digital service users, and logs of digital help requests.

To learn more about our research design and progress to date, stay tuned for the next post in this series.