Today, libraries provide essential access to digital equipment, services, and skills training. They are vital bridges across the digital divide. In this report, we present findings from our research in the Oxfordshire County Libraries, focused on two themes: (1) Exploring the day-to-day role libraries are playing in our digital world; (2) Understanding the lived experience of digital exclusion, through observations and data on library computer users and digital help seekers.
A young man approached the front desk hesitantly but with a smile. “Do you have phone chargers?” he asked.
Emilie, the staff member working on the front desk, couldn’t catch a break. In the 20 or 30 minutes I had been sitting at the front desk with her, there had been a steady stream of customers queuing with questions about books or printing. It was a weekday evening; people were coming in after work. I had recently switched my normal digital helping shift from afternoons to evenings because library staff had mentioned (on numerous occasions) that they desperately needed digital helpers after 5 PM.
Despite the rush, Emilie was consistently friendly and calm, working quickly and issuing direct instructions to keep the queue moving.
“Phone chargers? For customers? No, no, we don’t. There are outlets all over the library, though. You can use those,” she said.
“Oh, no,” the man said, “The thing is – I don’t have a charger. I need to charge my phone. I’m homeless, and I really just need to charge my phone for a bit.”
“Oh,” Emilie paused. “I see what you mean…”
“Do you have one?” he ventured. “For your phone? That I could borrow?”
This was the kind of front desk request that threw off the whole rhythm, stalling the queue. Over the time I had served as a digital helper, many library staff members had remarked on this: a lot of front desk requests need personalised attention that will take time, more than the minute or two that can usually be spared by staff, who are juggling multiple tasks.
I expected Emilie to shrug, maybe offer some sympathetic apology. But instead, she said, “Well, what kind of phone do you have?”
He showed her. “This kind.” He held up the bottom of the phone, exposing the connector.
“Ok, mine’s not like that,” she said. “But hang on. Can you just wait around here for a minute? I’m going to deal with these customers and then I’ll see if someone here has that phone.”
The man looked as surprised as I was. “Sure, yeah, no problem,” he said, and wandered off for a moment.
Emilie served the now fidgety cluster of customers that had massed around the front desk. When the queue receded, the man reappeared, hovering off to the side. Emilie caught sight of him, and said, “Can you give me your phone for a moment? I’ll ask around and come right back. Would that be OK?”
The man agreed without hesitation, and Emilie dashed off to the staff room, leaving the front desk to another staff member, who had just returned from shelving books.
Moments later, she returned. “I found one. Someone else has a phone like yours. I’m going to plug it in here, if that’s okay with you, and then when you want it back, you just come back here and ask for it,” she told him. “There’s always someone at the front desk,” she added.
The man was grateful; he thanked her and left the desk.
It was not your typical “digital help” session, I thought, but it was “digital help” nonetheless. How would I describe the service that Emilie just provided? Lending out personal phone chargers? It was not part of the library’s standard offering. But then again, it was – kind of.
After two years of volunteering as a digital helper in the Oxfordshire County Library, I had seen firsthand that “digital help” is hard to define, and it certainly is not confined to what we might consider to be “digital.” Widescale digitisation across all sectors and facets of everyday life has meant that digital needs are not isolated needs; and they are not merely about computers or internet connections – they are about being able to live an ordinary, well-rounded life.
Understanding digital exclusion in our digital age requires meeting digitally marginalised people where they are and glimpsing what everyday life looks like from their perspective. Libraries are a good (but certainly not the only) place to do this.
I started volunteering as a digital helper in my capacity as a private citizen, not as an academic researcher. I simply wanted to offer some hands-on support in an area that I worked on intellectually in my day job. But it quickly became apparent that digital exclusion didn’t look quite like what existing theory or policy on digital inequality or digital skills reflected. And surprisingly little research on digital literacy and skills had taken place in the real-life places, where digital exclusion is most visible and critical.
In a world that is digitising fast, libraries have become crucial bridges across the digital divide, whether or not they are prepared and adequately supported to play that role. From this vantage point, it is clear that dealing with the challenges of a persistent and pernicious digital divide means dealing with people as much as dealing with technology.
So, was Emilie offering digital help? Or just reacting to a personal need, on a human level?
Although this report is about digital inclusion, we would encourage you to resist drawing any strict boundaries around the “digital” as you read.
In what follows, we will demonstrate that the digital world – and therefore digital exclusion – is more complex than we might realise. Rather spuriously, the concept of a divide makes us think about digital versus non-digital, connected versus unconnected, literate versus illiterate, and other de-contextualised dichotomies that would treat digital inclusion as the reconciliation of an either/or. But the reality and the likely solutions really lie in the space between – where the social and technological meet.