New Americans and the Digital Literacy Gap

Article excerpt

While major urban centers like New York, Miami, and Los Angeles have always drawn new immigrants, there are many pockets of immigrants now drawn to mid-size cities because of job opportunities and proximity to families and former neighbors from their homes abroad. Some come to the US without significant digital literacy skills, and local libraries take up the challenge to help them meet their online needs. Here are two library systems, one in Idaho and one in Minnesota, that have found innovative ways to provide resources to these unique groups.

Idaho's "Train the Trainer" program

Boise and Twin Falls, Idaho, may not seem like major cities for immigrants but both have speakers of Hindi, Karen, Russian, and other foreign language who need digital literacy skills. The Idaho Commission for Libraries, in partnership with the Idaho Office for Refugees, developed a program that trains foreign language speakers to, in turn, teach digital literacy to others in their language groups.

With an "Online@your library" project grant (funded by the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program of the US Department of Commerce), commission staff trained 12 new Americans to use library tools to transfer digital literacy skills to others. The trainers now offer workshops and one-on-one coaching sessions in library facilities and in their communities using library resources. "Individuals are getting the skills they need to apply for jobs, find information for their families, help their kids with school, and live in our 21st-century America, where technology know-how is very important," said Gina Persichini, consultant for the Idaho Commission for Libraries.

Over a series of three afternoons, these 12 trainers learned about library resources and other online tools needed to help the refugee community.

Commission staff members pulled together a collection of digital literacy tools available through Idaho's statewide database program (LiLI.org), the "Online@your library" project, and other free online resources. The tools were organized into digital literacy guides addressing the following: finding a job, education, family and health information, access to e-government services, using a computer, and using the internet.

Staff spent only three months to clarify goals, develop the guides, find trainers, and deliver the sessions. Partners set out with the modest goal of teaching 200 individuals over six months. Just three months into training, the refugee trainers have exceeded all expectations. In that time, 212 coaching and training sessions were held, reaching 914 refugees in Boise and Twin Falls.

Trainers have been using public libraries to introduce trainees to public computers, library materials, and wireless internet. In some cases, the trainers have been reserving meeting rooms and laptop computer labs for training sessions.

Persichini said she hoped that those being coached will learn about the library as a place for online connectivity. She set a target of just 25% of the coaching sessions taking place in libraries (some were expected take place outside the library, such as in a coffee shop). Not only did trainers far exceed the number of individuals trained, but they also used a public library for 71% of those sessions. "We hoped that our project would highlight libraries and were pleasantly surprised by its immediate success," she said.

Minnesota library reaches out

Two Somali refugees, an uncle in his 60s and a nephew in his early 20s, started learning English together at Franklin Learning Center (FLC) in Minneapolis, a part of the Hennepin County Library system. …