Thursday, July 7, 2011

Libraries: Widening the Digital Divide.

So I don't know if you've noticed, but there seems to be a digital divide. The reason why I ask is because I don't know what the digital divide is supposed to be. I thought the digital divide was about access to digital and electronic resources. But if that's the case, then why are libraries working to make access to information even more difficult for anyone without the technology to access it?

I don't understand how it happened, but libraries are actually, make that ACTUALLY, widening the digital divide.

First, a little simple understanding: I feel, and I feel this is a truth, that the more steps it takes to reach a goal, the farther that goal is from achieving.

So if information is shared from person to person, the steps are small. We should speak the same language and not be insane or not eating food or any other logical thing that normally happens when people communicate. Remove idiotic barriers and we communicate.

If we print out the information, similar rules apply. We don't print the information in the sand inches from the rising tide that begins to wash it away; we don't spell it out with breadcrumbs so that birds eat it; we don't brand symbols into another person's skin with hot iron, unless they've signed a release, and we don't intentionally scribble the text in characters that others can't understand.

So in this world, we print with inks onto sheets of paper and we share those ideas with others who understand the languages we use. And that, I think, is a very short path between having information and sharing it with others.

And this used to be the method that libraries preferred. For years. Libraries made all of these printed pages available to others by collecting, organizing and storing them.

And if there was a technological divide, it was only there because visiting the library might have required a long trip of some distance.

But then libraries began purchasing digitized online products and texts. Or leasing. And by giving money to these products, they encouraged publishers to digitize more products. And these products were only accessible through the use of a computer with online access.

Thus, the digital divide was born. Actually, it was born when the publishers decided to digitize the data, but if the data didn't have a buyer, then would it have been digitized in the first place. It's a chicken and egg thing. Did the product exist before the market demanded it, or vice versa?

And so now libraries continue their complicity in the perpetuation of the divide by supporting every step that separates the user from the information.

Books require few steps between the user and the information.

Online information adds more steps in technology and online connectivity.

Ebooks add another step based on the various file formats and another for registering for DRM and even more if the content requires a specific ereader device.

And now The Cloud adds another step as it requires the user to have ongoing wireless connectivity that could cost $$$ per month in bandwidth fees to access content that could just as easily be downloaded and accessed locally.

Digital content can also be limited to specific applications that only run on specific portable devices such as iPads or Android tablets with the latest OS. And since portable devices are not as easily upgraded as desktop PCs or laptops, whole groups of users can be shut out from accessing information unless they purchase newer and better hardware.

And libraries encourage this. Proudly. Robustly. As if the librarians have forgotten that information should be accessible to everyone. Which, if true, forces me to question why the hell I'm working to keep information free when clearly, these other librarians want there to be some cost.

If these librarians are attempting to bridge the digital divide, then they must be building one longer than the one at Jiaozhou Bay. And God help anyone who breaks down in the middle.

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