Library internet access: is this a 20th Century solution to a 21st Century problem?
Kat Dixon is a research fellow with the Data Poverty Lab. Over three months, she’s investigating community-led initiatives which enable good access to the internet for people experiencing data poverty. These blog posts track her journey and thinking.
Most libraries in the UK offer free internet access; for some people this is the only way they can get online. And in many ways, this is brilliant – free, convenient provision for any citizen who needs it.
The UK Digital Strategy released last month focuses heavily on libraries as a cornerstone of digital inclusion. But the more I dig into data poverty (poor access to the internet), the more I think that government can’t lean on libraries as the solution to data poverty. Are we relying on a solution that still fits today’s needs? Are libraries really the answer?
When it comes to accessing internet for free or cheaply, libraries offer a ton of benefits:
- Many libraries offer skills support – you can join a computer club or ask a librarian for help. If digital skills don’t come easy to you, this is super helpful.
- Libraries are local, community spaces, which makes them ideal for gathering people together. They’re already part of local networks, so more people will hear about digital skills support and try their hand at using a computer.
- Libraries have devices you can borrow; usually a desktop on a bank of computers. So you don’t need a computer or smart phone to use the internet.
But, how we use the internet has changed rapidly. The pandemic has accelerated trends and we now use the internet for increasingly personal, private activities. Whether it’s banking, video-call counselling, or talking to our GP, these are activities where it’s not only undignified to do them in public, it’s also dangerous.
Libraries do not offer ideal internet access, especially if they are relied upon as someone’s only point of connection:
- Libraries are not spatially private – so whoever is browsing the internet is rarely in a private room. That means any conversation they have, with their GP, therapist, colleague, teacher, relative or friend, is audible to those around them. Sometimes it’s not possible to audibly interact, if it’s a quiet zone. And it’s not dignified to be forced to have private conversations in public. If you have no WiFi at home or no mobile connection, your library might be your only option; and that isn’t suitable for how we live our lives online.
- Libraries are not digitally private – they usually use public networks which means that any data transferred is more vulnerable. So, any interaction where a user inputs personal details – online shopping, banking, benefit claims, medical interactions – are all more vulnerable than on a private, home network. It is possible to make a connection private (using a VPN, ‘Virtual Private Network’), but many users and librarians aren’t confident or skilled in doing this. And many don’t know that it’s needed. That means people who can’t afford a home or mobile connection are forced to be more vulnerable in their online activities.
- Libraries do not offer convenient access: Imagine if every time you wanted to look up a bus timetable, check your email, or message a friend to say you’ll meet them in an hour, you had to travel to a physical building to do so. The Meaningful Connectivity Framework by The Alliance for Affordable internet lists ‘daily use’ as one of the four pillars of meaningful connectivity. There’s a lot of evidence to show that using the internet regularly impacts people’s skill level and confidence online. Making people travel to a library or public location puts unnecessary friction between them and the internet. And many library computers have time limits on them; 1 or 2 hours. Imagine being kicked off your smart phone each day after an hour’s use.
- Not everyone feels welcome: libraries can be incredible, welcoming community spaces. They can also feel elite, white and inaccessible to local people. It really varies. I hear anecdotal reports of people going to IKEA cafes and McDonald’s eateries to use the internet instead of a library. Technically, you’re supposed to buy something if you’re in those places. I think we really need to ask ourselves, why would someone choose internet where they might have to pay (indirectly) over a community space where it is genuinely free? I believe that has to do with culture, and in finding community solutions we need to pay attention to who feels included where.
So what’s the answer?
I believe in the intrinsic value of libraries; as places in a community where you can be warm, access knowledge and entertainment, and you don’t have to pay. I’m with Zadie Smith on that one. It makes me think of Naomi Klein’s views of public parks; we must protect public spaces because of what they offer, the counterweight to consumerism they provide.
But currently, I don’t think libraries are the answer to data poverty. To live our online lives in privacy, dignity and safety, we need private connections, both digitally and spatially.
One leading researcher suggested in conversation recently that we need to rethink the way physical library spaces are designed. So much of our society is set up in an individualistic way, carrying out solo tasks, that we need our communal spaces to reflect that. Do we need solo pods? Noise cancelling headphones in private rooms? What actually helps someone use the internet in a dignified way? Maybe the answer is prioritise home solutions, not rely on public ones.
We can’t rely on data poverty solutions from the previous century. The UK Digital Strategy needs to go further in tackling digital exclusion. We need to build internet access for everyone, in a way that is fit for the future. I’ll be exploring home-based solutions using fixed line and mobile connections, and which will be most scalable in the UK.
The Data Poverty Lab is formed by Good Things Foundation. All views expressed here are Kat’s own.
Data Poverty Lab Fellow
Kat Dixon is a digital inclusion advocate and one of our Data Poverty Lab Fellows, exploring community-led solutions to data poverty. Kat is Director of Partnerships at national charity Catch22 and has built digital skills and inclusion programmes with TikTok, Microsoft, Salesforce, Raspberry Pi and more. She champions inclusive co-design, the power of public-private partnerships and the transformative possibility of digital access. Kat previously scaled international healthcare innovations in the UK.