This study takes place in a broader context of a range of digital inclusion efforts and initiatives. Whether at the national, state, local, or international levels, governments, policymakers, civil society groups, libraries, non-profit organizations (NGOs), researchers, and others are working towards the goal of ensuring equitable access to the digital information society. Efforts can include, and are not limited to, broaband deployment, digital literacy, and public access computing center initiatives. This section identifies selected digital inclusion efforts as examples of this broad context in which public libraries provide key services, resources, and technologies to build digitally inclusive communities.

Defining Digital Inclusion

The ubiquitous nature of the Internet and accompanying services and technologies now makes equitable access to and participation in the online environment essential for success in education, employment, finance, health and wellness, civic engagement, and more. Digital inclusion brings together high-speed Internet access, information and communication technologies, and digital literacy in ways that provide opportunities for individuals and communities to succeed in the digital environment. More specifically, digital inclusion means that:

  • All members understand the benefits of advanced information and communication technologies.
  • All members have equitable and affordable access to high-speed Internet-connected devices and online content.
  • All members can take advantage of the educational, economic, and social opportunities available through these technologies.

1Institute of Museum and Library Services, University of Washington Technology & Social Change Group, International City/County Management Association. (2011 May). Proposed Framework for Digitally Inclusive Communities: Final Report. Washington, DC: Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Public Libraries and Digital Inclusion

Public libraries support digital inclusion in four essential ways:

  • By providing free access to public access technologies (hardware, software, high-speed Internet connectivity) in their communities.
  • By providing access to a range of digital content to their communities.
  • By providing digital literacy services that assist individuals navigate, understand, evaluate, and create digital content using a range of information and communications technologies.
  • By providing programs and services around key community need areas such as health and wellness, education, employment and workforce development, and civic engagement.

As community-based digital hubs, public libraries are critical community assets that facilitate the development and sustainability of digitally inclusive communities.

Sample initiatives, funded in part by the Broadband Technology Opportunity Program administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration in the U.S. Department of Commerce, include:

  • Alaska's Online with Libraries (OWL) Project. The project seeks to "provide all Alaskans with the benefits and opportunities that come hand in hand with high speed Internet. This includes areas such as e-government services, distance education opportunities and increased access to professional development." More specifically, the project is enhancing Public Computer Centers at 97 libraries, and is providing faster internet connections to many of these mostly rural/remote libraries. The project also establishes a public videoconferencing network for all of the libraries so that they can provide online training and other purposes.
  • The Arizona Public Access Computers (AzPAC) Project. Run by the Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records division, the project deployed more than 1,000 new computers in 84 libraries across the state. These computers will increase access to e-resources and enable the libraries to provide training in digital literacy and technology skills. AzPAC provides Arizona’s libraries with the equipment to reach an estimated 450,000 previously underserved citizens, many of whom do not have access to the Internet at home or work. In certain areas of Arizona, such as Yuma County, large populations of seniors rely on public libraries for access to computers and the Internet. In addition, three tribal libraries are participating in the program.
  • Colorado's Bridging the Great Digital Divide Project. The project provides computers, training, and public awareness campaigns in 88 Colorado communities. Completed early, the project installed or upgraded 88 public computer centers in Colorado (16% more centers than projected); Purchased over 1,500 desktops, laptops, tablets, and assistive technology machines (26% more computers than projected); Increased computer uses by 28%, for a total of over 3.46 million computer uses; and offered training to over 400,000 resident learners including 383,935 individual tutoring sessions and nearly 5,000 formal classes to 31,873 attendees.

These are just some examples of digital inclusion initiatives involving public libraries. More details on the roles that public libraries play in building digitally inclusive communities are available in the Public Libraries and Digital Inclusion issue brief.

Broadband Initiatives

Broadband -- availability, access, and adoption -- is a key element of digital inclusion. Selected broadband initiatives in the U.S. include:

  • The National Broadband Plan. Released by the Federal Communications Commission in 2010, the National Broadband Plan: Connecting America defines the barriers of broadband adoption as cost, digital literacy and relevance.
  • The NTIA Broadband Adoption Toolkit. Released in May 2013 by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the Toolkit organizes broadband adoption strategies into Awareness & Outreach, Home Computer & Broadband Service, Training: Planning & Delivery, and Training: Curriculum & Relevant Content.
  • Connect2Compete. Works in partnership with the nation’s leading Internet providers, hardware and software manufacturers, digital content creators, and more than 10,000 libraries and nonprofits to deliver free and affordable technology and training to all Americans.
  • Internet Essentials. Offered by Comcast, Internet Essentials offers low-cost Internet access and low cost computers for residents in qualifying households. Internet Essentials also partners with community organizations to offer digital literacy/training services, as well as online training modules.

Digital Literacy Initiatives

Being digitally literate means that individuals have the ability to engage with and use a range of information technologies, digital content, and online services and resources. Digital literacy initiatives include:

  • Designed to serve as a portal that provides information and resources to providers of digital literacy services, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration coordinated the development of the site with several federal agency partners.
  • Designed to create an online hub for digital literacy support and training. The site is intended to build upon and foster the work of libraries and community organizations as they work to increase digital literacy across the nation.
  • Learning Labs. Focused on developing digital literacy skills in youth, and built on the YOUmedia model of the Chicago Public Library, IMLS and the MacAurthur Foundation provided funding for 30 Learning Labs in libraries and musuems across the country.