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CHAPTER 3 - Changing Expectations: Equity, Technology and Community Design

A prerequisite for libraries having a larger role in addressing community challenges is changing expectations around public libraries. But changing expectations about libraries is no easy task. Part of that has to do with libraries’ unique role in their communities. No other institution opens its doors to people of all ages with free services that offer patrons the opportunity for learning, growth, and fun. Although a library is a classic “third place” (e.g., a community’s coffee shops, parks, and other amenities), the local public library is a third place with first order community responsibilities.1 The library often stays open when natural disaster strikes. It serves as a drop off center for voting and tech support when the latest gadget confuses a user. The local public library is an institution that communities cannot do without, but whose everyday reliability means it is not always “top of mind” as one of a community’s anchor institutions.

To help reset expectations, participants suggested that libraries try to promote an abundance mindset when thinking about their missions and how to communicate that to the community at large. Having abundance as an operating principle does not mean that libraries somehow double their budgets. Instead it means libraries should take an active role in shaping public perceptions of them. The way for libraries to create new expectations is to pursue initiatives in service of important societal issues. Specifically:

  • Equity: Bandwidth at the library offers an on-ramp to the internet for those without a home subscription or a subscription with insufficient speed to run the latest apps. It is a place people can go to cultivate job skills or acquire a certification for employment in a specific field. By offering new services and programs that take advantage of CENIC, libraries can address not just digital inequality, but also promote economic opportunity, improved health outcomes, and education for all ages.

    The question arose as to whether libraries should play a bigger role in discussions in the state about bandwidth and equity. How can public libraries work with other entities, such as the California Emerging Technology Fund, to achieve the goal of having 100% of California homes connected to broadband (at a time when 15% of homes are currently without broadband)? Should all homes have 1 GB connectivity available to them? How can public libraries facilitate broadband access for students of all ages? Public libraries in California could take a larger leadership role in pursuing discussions about defining ambitious tech goals and how to attain them.
  • Libraries as a showcase for technology: A persistent theme was that libraries should be tech centers for their communities. This asks libraries to reach out to private-sector partners to further that goal. Becoming a tech center also helps libraries better communicate their value to elected officials and other community leaders. But doing this is not about showcasing technology just for the sake of it. New technology can be daunting to many people and the library is a highly trusted institution for information and digital literacy. Ensuring libraries have the latest technology to demonstrate to patrons can help communities reap the benefits of innovation from the tech sector.
  • Libraries at the center of community design: As libraries use bandwidth to contribute to fairness and opportunity in their communities, participants noted that this can place them at the center of community design. There are lessons to be learned from others who are employing technology in such a way. In Fresno, Bitwise Enterprises is about improving the supply of trained workers for the tech field, but also about making its hometown of Fresno a more desirable place to live and work. Libraries should similarly see themselves as active participants in improving the look and feel of their communities and use CENIC bandwidth as a lever to do so.

In Fresno, an enterprise called Bitwise Industries trains local residents at its Geekwise Academy in an array of digital skills for tech jobs; to date, it has done so for more than 5,000 people of all ages. Bitwise also has sought to revitalize downtown Fresno by becoming an anchor business that develops new spaces and attracts more economic activity to a downtown that had fallen on hard times. Not every city in California has an entity such as Bitwise, but libraries can learn from its approach to place, education and execution as they expand workforce development programs for tech jobs. This, in turn, can help libraries be more at the center of community design.

Participants provided examples of how public libraries are resetting expectations while helping the community solve equity and design challenges. In Yolo County, the library’s strategic planning process identified 500 homes without broadband access. This resulted in the library leading an effort to negotiate a technology solution by which a wireless signal provided broadband access to those homes. Library involvement in residential broadband solutions is not standard practice, but the library in Yolo County was the entity that helped solve the problem.

In Nevada County, the library found that its tele-tutor program for adult learners would benefit from allowing tutors to take laptops home to provide services. Being able to provide tutoring at home helped make the process easier for tutors, although it was noted that if CENIC could be leveraged to improve broadband access at home for low-income students, the tutoring program could be more powerful.

In these examples, library staff found ways to address community needs by thinking beyond the building. As libraries delve into these issues, they can also address the second gap—the bandwidth-imagination gap.

1 Ray Oldenburg, The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community, Da Capo Books, 1989.
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