In February, the U.S. Department of Commerce surprised many longtime observers of the "digital divide"--the gap between those with access to computers and the Internet and those without. After issuing a string of Falling through the Net reports that played a major role in publicizing the concept of a digital divide, the agency issued its latest report, A Nation Online (www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/dn/), which announced that the digital divide is rapidly closing. "With more than half of all Americans using computers and the Internet," the report trumpeted, "we are truly a nation online."
That conclusion was controversial, and the data beneath the headlines paints a more ambiguous picture; for example, home Internet use ranges from 82.5% for children in families earning $75,000 and higher to 21.4% for those in families earning under $15,000. But even if it's true that the inequality is diminishing, does that mean that the work of closing the divide is over? That libraries can declare victory and move on?
No, says Martin Gomez, director of the Friends and Foundation of the San Francisco Public Library and a library director for 12 years. "It's not a matter of winning and losing," says Gomez. "It's a matter of staying in the game" as the technology evolves and its uses expand.
Gomez and others describe a role for libraries that's more than just a safety net when it comes to Internet access. Even as access increases, they say, libraries will play a key role in helping communities and individuals navigate the challenges of new information technologies. Andrew Gordon, professor at the University of Washington and director of the Public Access Computing Project (www.gspa.washington.edu/research/current.html#access), which has been assessing the Gates Library Initiative (AL, May, p. 20-21), remarks, "If you believe in the purpose of libraries in all their manifestations, then they will continue to be a place we want to have computers," even as access at home, school, and work continues to rise. Gomez speaks to that purpose when he says, "Our role is not only to provide the resources," noting that libraries do far more than provide simple access to books. "We need to help people learn," he adds. "Too many of us think of it as making computers and resources available. But there's a higher plane."
The traditional approach and its limits
Traditionally, the divide has been defined as the gap between those with access to computers and the Internet and those without. While this appears to be a simple and measurable definition, experience over the last decade demonstrates that it suffers from at least two serious flaws. First, such a gap is harder to measure than many had thought. The idea that a person either has access or doesn't gave way to the reality that while some people have no access of any kind, access comes in many flavors: Some have it at home and others at work or school or in the library. Some have a slow dialup connection, others a high-speed digital line. And some people primarily use e-mail, while others primarily surf the Web. Rather than being a clear divide, it turns out that agreeing on what constituted "access" was a far more complicated matter than some thought. Steve Cisler, a noted author, technology expert, and librarian, has written a sharp critique of this simple binary split that characterizes much of the thinking in this area. In "Subtract the Digital Divide," which appeared in the January 15, 2000, San Jose Mercury News, Cisler noted, "The reality is that all of us online exist on a spectrum of connectivity."
Second, and perhaps more important, giving people access to a computer attached to the Internet only begins to get at the divide that matters. In recent years, groups have added issues from training to content to the distribution of computer-science degrees to their definitions of the digital divide in order to link an array of social inequities to the popular phrase. …