Since May last year, we’ve been working with the Oxfordshire County Libraries to develop the Oxfordshire Digital Inclusion Project with funding from a Knowledge Exchange Seed Fund grant. Based on my personal experiences as a volunteer ‘digital helper’ at the Oxfordshire Central Library (which I wrote about in a previous post) and conversations with library staff and other volunteers there, we had a sense that the library was playing a front line role in closing the digital divide in the community. 

When people need free computer access and basic digital skills training, they’re turning to the library, and the library is doing its best to meet those needs with targeted programming. So library staff, my co-investigator Grant Blank, and I had tons of anecdotal evidence about what was happening in libraries, but we wanted to know more. Specifically, we were interested in systematically collecting data about (1) who visits the library for digital services and what their needs/usage patterns are and (2) how the library’s programming to meet those needs was working (or not).  

So how did we set out to do this?

We decided to collect three kinds of data, over the course of a couple months of intensive data collection:

  • Short surveys in paper and digital format about users and their needs;

  • Digital help logs, which could be completed by staff/volunteers any time they provided digital help to a library customer during the day;

  • Semi-structured interviews with library staff and volunteers about their experiences and their impressions of the digital help the library provides.

In the near future, we’ll be sharing more detailed information about the questions we asked and the responses we got for each of these categories of data. For the surveys, we based our questions on standard questionnaires used by the Oxford Internet Survey and Ofcom. We designed simple digital help logs that simply asked for a description of the help requested and how the customer was helped. In interviews, we asked questions about the day to day experience of working/volunteering in the library and addressing digital needs. What kinds of requests do staff/volunteers typically deal with? What have they learned by dealing with those requests? How do they feel about the assistance provided by the library? And more.

We launched the data collection part of the project on January 27, 2020, with paper surveys available in the Oxfordshire Central Library (in the Westgate Centre in Oxford), in-person interviews with library staff and volunteers at the library, and help logs available at the two customer service desks. On February 7th, we launched an online version of the survey, which automatically opened on all Public Network computers in all 44 county libraries when users logged in. This prompted users to complete the short survey online.

With data collection recently completed, we’ve collected nearly 1200 surveys across Oxford’s 44 libraries, and over 13 hours of interviews with library staff and volunteers (and counting).

And we’ve learned a lot. Digital assistance has become integral to the day-to-day operation of the library. With so many digital help requests coming to the library, staff would be overwhelmed if they had to deal with them all, so volunteers have become essential. And they do much more than simply instruct people on how to complete a technical task.

"So the digital helping volunteer program, it's very useful. Without a doubt, [digital helpers] are lifesavers because it saves staff hours for us. If one person is held up for ten minutes, that can cause backups on the desk. It's also really beneficial because I'm very surprised how computer illiterate a lot of people in Oxford are. So a lot of people will come in, and they do not know generally how computers work, whether that's because they've only got a smartphone and they've only ever used touchscreen - we have got that a lot - or because they've grown up from a generation where they did not have a computer, or whether they've just been left behind by technology, so technology has marched on without them... The digital helpers are nice, calm, they will sit down with people to guide them through."

- Tom, library staff member

There are some obvious challenges and shortcomings to the design of this preliminary study on digital service use. We don’t survey all library customers, just computer users. We don’t interview library customers, just staff/volunteers. And as with convenience samples like this, there is a certain degree of self-selection bias: participants have to actively opt-in to share their views on the topics we’re interested in. But the goal of the Oxfordshire Digital Inclusion Project is to get much more comprehensive, systematic, and data-driven insights into how library digital services are being used. With more robust data, we can tell a better story about how public libraries are addressing digital inequality from the ground up.