At one point in project, a senior manager turned to me and said, do you really need 120 PCs? Can’t people just use Wi-Fi?
The comment felt both frustrating and illuminating in equal measure. As librarians, we know the weight of the demand, the continual stream of people looking for access. We know the value that people place on the service, and the mounting frustration when things go wrong, in a world that expects us all to be online, all the time.
And yet for many New Zealanders, a lack of access to the internet, the lack of a device, is something that they can hardly conceive of at all.
In April this year, Wellington City Libraries provided 248,689 minutes of public internet access time on PCs
That’s over 4,000 hours.
10,900 individual sessions.
That’s not including our free public Wi-Fi.
That’s 4,000 hours of people who either don’t have a device to get online, or needed to do something online that couldn’t be done on the device they had.
Yes, we really do need 120 PCs.
And bear in mind that this is in Wellington, where we have one of the highest median household incomes in the country, and think about what that means for the rest of New Zealand.
Libraries are on the front line of the digital divide, and we’ve been there for the last 20 years.
We have been there through the closure of job seeker centres and internet cafes. Through the rise of the smart phone, eBooks, streaming. Through government initiatives to push transactions online. Through the closure of small regional government offices, and banks around the country.
And still people are coming.
Digital provides the mechanism for communication, connection, companionship, relationships, freedom of expression, and freedom of information.
There is the heartache of refugees connecting with families in the places they have fled from.
There is the disappointment and hope of people applying for jobs.
There is the joy of people finding that special niche of people online who share their passion for cosplay, or tatting, or heirloom tomatoes.
Connection and involvement in society, is such a human need.
It is easy to look at digital inclusivity in a transactional way. I need to transfer money to pay my rent. I need to apply for a job. I need to get a passport.
And these are all important. And, they are also only part of the picture.
Social inclusion is impossible without digital inclusion. This hasn’t always been the case, and even 20 years ago, the idea of access to the internet being a human right would have still seemed, if not laughable, at least highly dubious.
But that is now the position of the UN.
With so many of our connections and interactions moving online, we can’t deny that to be digitally excluded, is to be socially excluded.
Some of us may choose to digitally exclude ourselves. I’ve recently deleted Facebook, the mothership of social media. But that’s my choice. Should I want to go back online, I can. I still have email, Twitter, access to the internet. I have the key enablers: trust, motivation, ability and access.
So, whose role is it to build a digitally inclusive world?
The responsibilities are murky and there are a lot of players. Libraries have a mission that is compatible with digital inclusion, where we can make the argument for our involvement. But the demand, the need, is far greater that what we can supply.
Following COVID-19, the National Library received money under the NZ Libraries Partnership Programme to help the COVID-19 Recovery. The programme allowed libraries to employ staff to work in one of six areas, and one of those areas was digital inclusion.
Such was the need, that every library in the Wellington region hired a digital inclusion related role.
Why did it take a pandemic for the need to be funded? That money runs out on 30 June 2022. The need will not magically go away. 1 July 2022 will dawn, with tens of thousands of people across Aotearoa still being digitally excluded.
As with every tricky social issue, the factors that contribute to digital exclusion are complex.
But we have a network of groups, working in the community who are ready to help, who spend tireless hours applying for funding, to see it as their mission to do what they can.
My plea to the big players is this, think bigger. Digital inclusion may be a problem for the individual, but the causes, and many of the solutions, lie in valuing our people, and providing an environment in which they can thrive. That means funding, broadband rollout, digital initiatives in schools, teacher upskilling, and a level of household income that goes beyond subsistence and into living.
We can do better.
And if we want New Zealand to thrive digitally, we must.
Laurinda Thomas; Wellington City Libraries and Community Spaces Manager. She is a former LIANZA President and the current chair of the LIANZA Credentials Committee. Laurinda has recently joined the ReadNZ Te Pou Muramura Board. Laurinda has lived in Wellington half her life, and the other half in Palmerston North. She has two children (four and six), who keep her on her toes and give her the best excuse to read lots of picture books!