Urban Poverty and the Internet: Libraries, Information Needs, Technology and Local Policy

31 Pages Posted: 16 Mar 2018 Last revised: 16 Aug 2018

Date Written: August 15, 2018


Urban Poverty and the Internet: Information needs, technology and local policy Sharon Strover, University of Texas at Austin Email: sharon.strover@austin.utexas.edu Abstract Urban populations in the U.S. have high concentrations of poverty even as many major cities register greater wealth growth over the past several years. While poverty rates in urban areas dropped from 2015 to 2016, some metro areas still register high levels of poverty, a rate of 13% in New York, for example (Brookings, 2018; Bishaw and Kirby, 2016). With pressures to move into better paying jobs and better housing and to find resources to make the most of economic, health and educational opportunities, people’s abilities to access and work with information - particularly online information - become more important in these environments. For these reasons, several cities including Austin, Seattle, Minneapolis, New York and Chicago have launched their own digital inclusion programs to target digital literacy and digital access problems which occur frequently among lower income populations. Libraries are frequent core components of those plans. Libraries’ adaptation to the electronic information setting prompt this examination of one major case: the New York Public Library’s (NYPL) recent project for loaning hotspots. We briefly review the rise of library interest in loaning hotspots, and then present empirical detail on a hotspot lending program in New York City, arguably the largest hotspot loan program in the world with its 10,000 mobile devices. We examine hotspots in terms of libraries’ new roles as digital inclusion institutions and in terms of users’ attitudes and behaviors. Qualitative and quantitative data from librarians, hotspot users and non-users reveal some of the ways such programs speak to Internet affordability and the conditions structuring Internet use among the patron population. These results bear certain implications for libraries and cities might think about their digital inclusion agendas. The major institutions that Americans rely on for improving their skills and opportunities include schools and other informal learning settings such as targeted clubs or programs. We single out libraries as one highly relevant site for urban populations seeking improved information resources. Libraries have historically positioned themselves as pillars of information and inclusion in American society. Free, available to all, with materials in multiple languages and formats, libraries are possibly the most inclusive public institution in the country. They are a lightning rod for sharing information resources with all comers. Moreover, most cities fund public libraries, and have identified them as crucial elements within their digital inclusion plans. That said, as more materials migrate to the Internet, and as preferences for how one accesses information and culture change, libraries are challenged to also incorporate both the Internet and new information-seeking behaviors into their operations and philosophy, and to effectively reach the people who might like to use their assets. To examine libraries’ roles in expanding Internet access, this paper examines how lower income patrons used loaned hotspots, and how libraries are responding to their role as digital inclusion institutions. No longer simply checking out books and providing reading tables, libraries have steadily moved into loaning audio and video items, providing computers and internal wifi, ebooks, and now hotspots. The implications of library efforts toward digital inclusion can be bedrock elements of city plans to address digital divides and digital literacy, and the results of hotspot lending programs reflect on how cities and other governmental levels might frame digital inclusion projects in the future.

Keywords: digital inclusion, urban, universal service, city, digital divide, Internet

Suggested Citation

Strover, Sharon, Urban Poverty and the Internet: Libraries, Information Needs, Technology and Local Policy (August 15, 2018). TPRC Conferences, TPRC 46: The 46th Research Conference on Communication, Information and Internet Policy 2018. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3141874

Sharon Strover (Contact Author)

University of Texas at Austin ( email )

2317 Speedway
Austin, TX 78712
United States

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