Enabling digital inclusion through public libraries

Dr Kira Allmann and colleagues have worked with public libraries across Oxfordshire to identify barriers to digital inclusion and develop recommendations to help libraries better support digital access and skill development.

bookshelves inside a libraryLibrary interior.

(Credit: Kira Allmann)

From paying bills online to seeking employment or accessing government services, digital administration is an increasing part of daily life. For many people it makes tasks easier and quicker. But what about those who lack Internet access or are not confident using digital technologies?

Working as a volunteer in the Digital Support Programme at the Oxfordshire County Library, anthropologist Kira Allmann was struck by how many people were seeking help for everyday tasks such as charging their mobile phone or setting up an email account. “I wanted to find out more about the barriers library users face in navigating the digital world and how services could be improved to support them,” she explains.

“Most research on digital inclusion is based on self-reported assessment of digital competency or performance testing in laboratory type environments – which doesn’t give an accurate picture,” she continues. “We decided to apply anthropological approaches to understand digital exclusion from the ground up.”

The research project, funded by the Knowledge Exchange Seed Fund, ran from Jan 2020-June 2020, with Allmann and colleagues observing library users completing everyday tasks and interviewing library staff and volunteers. Library users were also invited to complete an online survey and staff kept a digital log tracking the support requests they received throughout the day.

The research found that users wanted help to achieve specific goals, such as applying for a job or a bus pass, rather than to strengthen their digital skills more generally. It also showed the complexity of digital tasks such as completing a claim for Universal Credit, which often require the use of both email and mobile phones to verify information and manage updates. “Above all the research showed the importance of human mediation of digital skill development,” Allmann continues.

“People want a human being to support their learning rather than to be left to struggle with instructions or training modules.”

The final project report, Libraries on the Front Lines of the Digital Divide, makes key recommendations for policy – crucially the need to shift the digital agenda from ‘digital skills’ to ‘digital well-being’.

“Current strategies focus on programmes to enhance employment opportunities or access leading-edge technologies,” explains Allmann. "But around a fifth of the UK population simply don't have the skills they need for everyday life, and this is often people already disadvantaged by disability, low income, or other vulnerabilities.

"Digital inclusion should be about enabling people to develop the skills they need to live an ordinary, well-rounded life. And at the same time as supporting skill development, policy makers need to start where people are at now – providing alternatives to accessing services online and ensuring platforms are as intuitive and easy to navigate as possible. We should also recognise the vital role of libraries in providing digital support and fund them accordingly.”

The research findings have been shared with digital policy makers and other service providers, including the All-Parliamentary Group on Digital Skills which cited the academic research in an expert report.

“We are really delighted with the interest the report has generated,” says Allman. “Several library services, including Manchester and Oxfordshire, are looking at how they can enhance their digital help offer to better support users. We will continue to share findings with local authorities and others to promote the importance of addressing digital well-being in all aspects of policy.”

Kira Allmann was previously a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Media Law & Policy in the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies at the University of Oxford. She is now a Public Engagement Researcher at the Ada Lovelace Institute in London.

Annique Wong received her MSc in the Social Science of the Internet at the University of Oxford and is now working at Facebook.

Dr Grant Blank is the Survey Research Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute and Senior Research Fellow of Harris Manchester College, Oxford.

Funder: KE Seed Fund