How the other half lives: touring the digital divide

Jessamyn West (MetaFilter) and Jenny Engstrom (NYPL)

Slides at

“For a lot of people, the reality is our computers are their computers.”

The digital divide is no longer about not having computers – the gap is between those who have broadband and those who don’t, and also a gap in education/understanding among those who have little or no online experience.

Why people do not have Internet access: a variety of reasons – no access in remote areas; they can’t afford it, or they don’t understand the benefits.

Usable web design and good web writing benefit people with low Internet literacy. Especially important with online forms. Business can decide “those people aren’t our customers, we don’t have to design for them” – government can’t.

Public libraries are the intermediary – people have the expectation that since libraries offer the Internet, they should also offer support for everything you need or want to do with the Internet.

Estimate: a little less than half the population of New York City has broadband. NYPL did a survey and found that about half their computer users did not have computers at home; the rest used the library because the service there is faster. “The digital divide is really about the concentration of poverty” – residential segregation by race/income. Only 26% of households in New York City Housing Authority have broadband – disappointing because it seems like this could be addressed through government initiative.

NYPL stats: 3,613 public computers (1/3 are laptops). Problem that library computers are specially configured for security reasons and are not like home computers – if this is your only access, you are not learning how regular computers work.

Computer classes: ClickOn @ the Library – had $1 million grant funding for four years, built labs, brought in outside trainers to teach staff, had marketing budget to reach target users. Now using laptops to create flexible lab spaces. Training is a bit more ad hoc – individual librarians are teaching what they are comfortable with.

Characteristics of users with low Internet skills:

  • read the entire page – haven’t developed scanning skills
  • distracted by ads/movement
  • afraid of “breaking it”

They don’t like:

  • advertising
  • forced registration
  • “watch this video to learn this”
  • PDFs
  • DHTML menus and tiny triangles
  • computer/Internet jargon

Real issue of time limits – public library users are on a clock.

Jessamyn: “people don’t know what a catalogue is or what a database is.”

Mobile pages will save us – simplified page design will work better for low-skilled users.

“If I could change one thing about how computers work, double-clicking would not exist.”

Need someone to design a simpler web mail system for low-skilled users. Amen!


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