We have discussed the digital divide implications between rural and urban/suburban settings noting how rural public libraries struggle to provide adequate broadband and information technology (IT) support. The Public Library Funding and Technology Access Study (PLFTAS) data demonstrate this struggle. Recent events in Florida suggest that strategies to reduce the rural digital divide – or at least the role that libraries can play in reducing that divide – will remain difficult.
Some background is in order. Last week Governor Rick Scott vetoed $1.5 million that would support multi-type library cooperatives (MLC) covering different regions in the state. Due to the recession, many public libraries in Florida have had budget cuts of 30-40 percent And over recent years, State Aid to libraries has been reduced significantly to the minimum amount that allows the State to qualify for Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) Grants to State Library Administrative Agencies.
While the $1.5 million veto may not sound like much money, the pain likely will be felt disproportionately in rural areas since many of the rural libraries depend on their MLC for a range of IT access, training, and support. As part of this blog, I interviewed a number of Florida public librarians for their assessment of the veto on the digital divide in Florida.
One person commented that the veto was an “insult to injury” given previous cuts and listed a range of IT services, staff, training, and support that likely would be reduced in her rural library. Another thought that the support they had been receiving from their MLC “made the difference” between mediocre and above average IT services. Yet another noted that maintaining high-speed broadband and support services may now become a “luxury.” Still another noted that probably 97% of all the training her library staff received came from her MLC. Other stories and testimonials abound.
We have all read the various strategies and heard the exhortations about how libraries can reduce the digital divide, provide public access to a range of broadband and IT services, offer a range of IT and broadband training, work/collaborate with other community organizations and residents, etc. While these strategies are great ones, at the end of the day, resources (i.e., money) are needed to make these services happen.
Data related to the 2010-2011 PLFTAS on the urban-rural digital divide will be updated in the soon-to-be-released 2011-2012 PLFTAS. These will be most interesting in terms of trends and the degree to which this digital divide between rural vs. urban/suburban is being reduced, or not. But since the data were collected in the fall of 2011, the impact of Governor’s Scott veto on funding Florida MLCs and their support for rural libraries’ IT-related services and training, for example, will not be represented.
As many states complete their annual legislative session this month, we’d all like to hear how individual states fared this year in public library funding. So take a moment to post a quick comment to this blog summarizing how the budget wars affected libraries and the digital divide in your state. Will libraries be better off in your state this time next year?
Despite the anguish and teeth-gnashing of many librarians here in Florida, they will continue to fight the good fight and try to reduce the impact of the digital divide as best they can – especially in rural settings. The veto will just make that task more difficult to accomplish.
But there are a number of very clear conclusions as to reducing the digital divide: first, there has to be political will at all jurisdictional levels that recognizes that the digital divide exists; second, cuts in resources to libraries only make the digital divide worse; and third, people without access to high-speed broadband and related services – whether from the library or not – are disenfranchised residents of this country.
Dr. McClure is the President of Information Management Consultant Services, LLC, email@example.com