In digital era, libraries key to closing divides

In an age where people seem to spend their entire lives online, it can be easy to discount libraries, which some call obsolete in the face of websites, apps and software. But the truth is libraries remain more relevant than ever; crucial for such tech to thrive.

Here the term "digital divide" comes to mind. Just last year the FCC found that 24 million Americans don't have basic broadband — 14 million of them living in rural areas. Stated differently: not everyone is integrated into the digital era, nor has the know-how to master its tools.

This is where libraries come in. Libraries — such as the Public Library of New London — are for many the only way to use (and learn) digital tools. From uploading a resume to finishing an online course, I've seen patrons enter our library just to have a steady network and other basic resources.

This is part of the evolution of libraries. While it is true libraries were once buildings primarily for recreational reading, they've since become comprehensive spaces for professional development. Right now three-quarters of public libraries assist patrons with job applications and interviewing skills, while 90 percent offer basic digital skills training courses. In a state where 82 percent of basic-skill jobs require some amount of technical proficiency, services like these make a huge difference.

Other figures tell the story at a more granular level. Thirty-three percent of libraries presently offer workshops for starting a new business, while 24 percent provide online skills certification programs and 35 percent run digital GED prep courses. This is certainly the case at the New London library, where just last year we too ran multiple digital skills classes and saw our 31 computers used over 32,000 times (for a record number of job-related issues).

For communities like New London to remain competitive, it's imperative that we all have access to certain skills, tools and knowledge. While many people have the ability to get these things on their own, many others don't. Libraries can play a big role in closing this technology accessibility gap, making them an important investment for our communities.

One way to meet this need is private-sector partnerships, like the New London library's free day-long tech seminar with Google. Staffers received training, gaining exposure to Google's own curriculum and learning about free resources that can help job seekers and businesses. This is what we mean by investing more. The more we can learn from partners like Google, the more we can in turn provide to patrons to help them meet their goals.

The Public Library of New London is a historic building and an old institution, serving our area for generations. But words like "historic" and "old" shouldn't suggest "outdated" or "antiquated," because while most libraries are celebrating big-digit birthdays, they're also at the forefront of teaching modern-day skills.

Madhu Gupta is executive director of the Public Library of New London.

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