Dr Kira Allmann
Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Media Law & Policy, Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, University of Oxford
“Public libraries are trusted, accessible community spaces that people rely on to cultivate relationships, exchange ideas, and learn. Today, libraries provide essential access to digital equipment, services, and skills training. They are vital bridges across the digital divide, which is crucially important as we enter an era of an era of ‘compulsory computing’. People do not have a choice about whether to ‘go online’ or not. Many employers accept only online job applications, and the government’s ‘digital by default’ agenda means government services are increasingly accessible only online. As a result, people are compelled to use digital devices and the internet in order to participate in everyday life.
This report summarises findings from the 2020 Oxfordshire Digital Inclusion Project, which studied the digital assistance provided in Oxfordshire County Libraries. Despite their prominence in public policy agendas, libraries are chronically under-resourced and underappreciated sites of stop-gap digital help to people living in digital poverty. Staff reported spending up to 50% to 70% of their time addressing digital help requests. In the 2019–2020-year, digital helper volunteers provided over 800 hours of digital assistance in Oxfordshire Libraries, but library staff reported that this volunteer provision was not at all sufficient to meet the level of need. The authors offer several recommendations about how to better address digital exclusion and to enable libraries to fulfil the role they are already performing, including improving the digital skills of library staff and improving the funding available for libraries’ digital programmes.”