England’s libraries play a vital role in wider digital inclusion networks

New research shows that libraries across England are playing a vital role in tackling digital exclusion - as part of a wider ecosystem of support for communities.

New research has found libraries in England play a vital role in tackling digital exclusion – both as an individual service offer and – more importantly – as part of a wider ecosystem of digital inclusion support in communities. 

“Digital Inclusion in Libraries”  is a collaboration between Good Things Foundation, Libraries Connected, and WSA Community Consultants, generously supported by an Arts Council England grant of £85,065.

Research found library services – described as positive, trusted, universal, and free – are already playing an essential role in fixing the digital divide alongside community organisations and others in communities.

Over 80% of library services expressed confidence they were meeting the right needs, and 3 in 10 library services are found to be early adopters of digital inclusion innovation, registering for schemes like the National Databank – providing free mobile data connectivity for people who need it through local databank partners.

The research found 7 in 10 library services already use our free digital learning platform Learn My Way to help people learn basic digital skills (and all library services offer free public WiFi in most of their branches) whether for anyone or for members only.

Findings also saw a strong appetite from library services to evolve their digital inclusion provision and partnerships. Around 60% of services reported they are developing, or want to develop, offers of giving devices to people for use outside the library (through the National Device Bank), and providing free mobile data connectivity (through the National Databank).   

Some libraries have seen a growing demand for help with things like online form-filling for health, benefits, or council services. 

Limited staff, volunteers, funding and, for some, outdated IT infrastructure – were found to limit what libraries can offer.

Yet, enabling libraries to play their best role in supporting digital inclusion is vital in a context where, in the UK today, around 10 million adults lack foundation-level digital skills; around 2 million households have no home internet access, and at least 2 million households struggle to afford broadband or mobile data connectivity (Sources cited in Digital Nation 2022).

These findings challenge Government and local authorities to do more to recognise and resource the essential work carried out by libraries, community organisations, and others across the country in supporting digitally excluded people.

That’s why Good Things Foundation and Libraries Connected are calling on the Government to develop a new digital inclusion strategy for England, which recognises, values and funds this critical work in communities across the country.

Dr Emma Stone, Director of Evidence and Engagement at Good Things Foundation said: 

“Lots of libraries are already members of the National Digital Inclusion Network run by Good Things Foundation. 

“This research shines a light on the vital role they play alongside and in partnership with community and voluntary sector organisations and local authorities. 

This is the national social infrastructure for digital inclusion. We believe that recognising and resourcing this critical infrastructure should be at the heart of a new digital inclusion strategy for England.” 

Isobel Hunter, Chief Executive of Libraries Connected said: 

“As this important research shows, public libraries are ideally placed to provide the skills, connectivity and equipment that we all need to make the most of our online world. It showcases the really innovative work that libraries are doing – often in partnership with other community organisations – to help people access digital services, experiment with new technology and stay safe online. If libraries are to continue closing the digital divide, however, they will need more specialist staff, upgraded infrastructure and more strategic thinking from local and national government.”

Luke Burton, Director, Libraries at Arts Council England said: 

“Digital inclusion has long been a priority across library services but has come even more to the fore with the increased need to access services and information online, as was highlighted during the COVID pandemic. The Arts Council was keen to fund this research in order to give concrete evidence and recommendations to all sectors involved in delivering digital inclusion activities. The examples of best practice and the framework provided through this research should give practical support and advocacy for public libraries in England.”

People who need help with digital learning and digital confidence can find their local community hub here.

Read the research findings

In collaboration with Libraries Connected, WSA Community Consultants, and Arts Council England.