Considering Hyperlinked Communities: Covid-19 and Digital Divide

In the 21st Century Digital Divide Jessamyn West (2014) touches on some very current dilemmas we are facing here in 2020.  She examined the role of libraries as the safety net for the digital divide in most areas, as well as considered the role we are all playing in the shaping of our culture though our behavior online. 

The public library’s role as the safety net for the digital divide abruptly ended in mid-March for many organizations.  There was no time for planning and infrastructure building.  On March 11th, my library was filled with patrons taking care of their daily needs on the computer provided and by later that evening we were all being informed the library wouldn’t reopen the following morning. By “we”, I mean those of us who had access to online information. 

Closed, shield, note, after work, mirroring - free image from needpix.com

I am sure many showed up the next morning completely unaware of what had shifted overnight.  While there might not be any need for finger-pointing or blame, this was still an utter fail.  We abruptly ceased our social contract of providing the community with needed resources, offering very little backup support to the most in need.  In hindsight, we let fear lead when we could have thought more strategically about how to stay linked with the community.  Only time will tell the long-lasting damage done to our reputation. (disclaimer- a reflection on my own personal work experience- not libraries at large).

I want to pause here and think about the term “Hyperlinked” and how we are extending that term in this class.  Webster defines hyperlink as an electronic link providing direct access from one distinctively marked place in a hypertext or hypermedia document to another in the same or a different document.  My understanding that I am gathering from the course content (correct me if I am wrong) is that we are extending this term to represent the invisible but powerful connection we want to make between the information and services we provide as a library to our community. This connection is to be a two-way model, information and services that reflect the needs and wants of the community even if the community cannot articulate those needs and wants.  By using this modern term “hyperlink” we are putting into the imagination the understanding that we are linking together in real spaces and in virtual spaces due to the new technology that is all around us.

Here is where I pushback, this new technology is all around us, but is only available to some through the physical space that we provide.  After over five months of the physical space being closed and the connection severed, I think we have some real work to do when imagining the Hyperlinked community in a post quarantine time.  If we are going to sure up the connection in the future, we are going to have to be activist about closing the digital divide.  Offering hotspots for check out and expanded WIFI in our parking lots is one way I have seen this work done.  Another way would mean being local voices in our community about the need for infrastructure and funding for school-age children to have free WIFI in their home.

photo of all the new hotspots purchased this summer for circulation

All this is part of the work of a truly hyperlinked community, that even in a crisis situation we think about that connection we have forged and get creative about how we support those who rely on us.

A great example of a hyperlinked community that held connection through the quarantine: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2020/aug/13/when-covid-closed-the-library-staff-call-every-member-of-victorian-library-to-say-hello

References:

West, J. (2014). 21st century digital divide.

3 thoughts on “Considering Hyperlinked Communities: Covid-19 and Digital Divide

  1. Great post! The digital divide has been on my mind a lot lately. I live in a rural area, where digital access at home can sometimes be scarce or non-existent. The library is an outlet for many of those who do not have Internet connection. But then the pandemic happened. You mentioned the wi-fi in the parking lot, which my local library has implemented since its closure. But that really only works for patrons who have digital devices. However, I think the idea of hot spot borrowing is amazing, and I definitely plan to share that with my library when they reopen. (Though even hot spots only connect if there’s a signal to connect to– connections can be spotty in rural areas.) It’s great to discuss the digital divide but, like you mention, the library should be a strong advocate in closing the gap the divide creates. And while most libraries were unprepared for this pandemic, a lot of libraries have transformed their programs and services to keep all their patrons informed, including those who may not have digital access. Thank you for sharing such a thoughtful post!

  2. Thank you, @amberbales, for expressing the disconnect (pun intended…maybe??) between the dictionary definition of the term “hyperlinked” and the definition of the Hyperlinked Library we’ve been given by Michael Stephens through his writing and other foundational reading for the course. I’m not saying that calling this course The Hyperlinked Library is inaccurate, but it requires layers of explanation that may be understood by us students, but require a lot of elaboration for those not in the course. Michael’ begins The Heart of Librarianship with the chapter The Hyperlinked Librarian, the first sentence being an expansion on the truism that “The Web has changed everything.” He goes on to say that the Web “has also become an integral part of an evolving model of library services focused on user-centric opportunities to engage and learn, capitalizing on the affordances of network-enabled technologies.” Even though Michael continually emphasizes the user-centric part of this statement, it is difficult to get past the importance of “network-enabled technologies.” And so I, like you (I gather), am deeply troubled by the digital divide and how the pandemic has exacerbated digital inequities and greatly reduced the role of libraries in helping bridge that divide. So thank you for linking to that article in The Guardian (love The Guardian) describing the efforts of Melbourne libraries to reach and and connect with older adults, those group most likely to be isolated right now. It makes me want to do the same for our library’s older users.

  3. Kay,
    Thank you for this post. I am not currently working in a library but we frequent our local public library weekly (or did before March). This topic has been on my mind a lot during the last few months. It’s been interesting observing some of the transitions libraries near me have undertaken like switching to virtual programing and expanding their digital resources.

    I am simply struck by the term “social contract” that you used when describing library relationships with communities and the services communities need and expect. Viewing the relationship in that way puts an entirely new spin on things. It’s profound!

    Thank you!
    Jen

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