An opportunity for public libraries to demonstrate their role in digital inclusion

With thanks to Sharon Wagg from the Tinder Foundation for this post.

Libraries have a key role to play in digital inclusion, and can help us reach the furthest first. To do so, however, digital inclusion needs to move up agendas, out of dark corners, into the 21st Century, and most importantly – into the heart of communities.

That’s the topline of a new report from Tinder Foundation, exploring 16 innovative new digital inclusion projects from libraries.

Perhaps it’s best to start from the beginning. Following last year’s £7.4m investment from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) for the installation of WiFi in 99% of public libraries in England, Tinder Foundation identified the need for research and insight into how WiFi could be maximised through the use of mobile technology. We wanted to explore the impact of investing in the development of library users’ digital skills.

As a result, Tinder Foundation, in consultation with the Leadership for Libraries Taskforce, launched the Library Digital Inclusion Fund – to help those with WiFi already installed to engage and support hard-to-reach learners who were socially and digitally excluded, and to deliver basic digital skills training using WiFi and mobile technology.

In March this year I wrote a blog revealing the interim findings of the Library Digital Inclusion Fund, and I am now in the privileged position to announce the publication of the Library Digital Inclusion Fund final report.

The report details the digital inclusion delivery models and pilots carried out by 16 Library Services across England – funded by Tinder Foundation, and showcases unique approaches and best practice in delivering basic digital skills in libraries.

As Research Lead, I’ve travelled up and down the country visiting the library services participating in the project. I’ve been overwhelmed by the dedication of library staff, and the innovation I’ve seen on the ground in getting library and digital services out to some of the very hardest to reach individuals and communities. I’ve learned that libraries are ideally placed to engage these audiences – but that in order to do so they’ve had to think a bit differently.

Delivering in over 200 library branches in both rural and urban areas, and in a variety of outreach locations, the Library Digital Inclusion Fund supported over 1,600 digitally excluded people to improve their basic digital skills. Over 800 of those people have been supported to access health information online and develop their digital health literacy. People reached out to included those on low incomes, the long term unemployed, unpaid carers, people with disabilities and those who are housebound and socially isolated.

Here are five of our key findings:

  1. Partnerships are essential in helping libraries to reach and support new audiences

Library Research Partners built on the reputation of the library ‘brand’ to engage partners and support their delivery models. They helped recruit volunteers, reach established groups, and deliver in trusted outreach locations. Newcastle City Library, for example, partnered with a Housing Association and delivered sessions to tenants in the central library. Meanwhile Doncaster Libraries teamed up with their Local Authority’s digital and marketing teams to help ‘market’ digital inclusion, while Cumbria Libraries partnered with a local college whose health and social care students helped deliver sessions to adults with physical disabilities and learning disabilities. (See case studies for more information).

  1. Mobile equipment is essential in delivering outreach sessions, and in engaging older or more vulnerable groups

Mobile devices such as WiFi enabled tablets and laptops, and mobile WiFi hotspots, made it possible to take the library service out into the community, enabling libraries to deliver in outreach locations such as hospitals, churches, foodbanks, and local community centres. Leeds Central Library delivered sessions by lending tablets to housebound learners for use in their own homes, and Doncaster libraries delivered digital skill sessions in a social enterprise that provides support for unemployed adults with learning difficulties. These audiences benefited from the intuitive, touch-screen interface, which they found easier to handle than a keyboard and mouse.

  1. Libraries need to collect robust digital inclusion data to track the progress of their learners and programmes, and demonstrate their impact to funders and stakeholders

Through the project the 16 Library Research Partners were able to accurately record and track the progress of their learners and collect rich management information using Tinder Foundation’s online learning platform Learn My Way, which automatically captures data on learners’ activity, and online tutor return tool CaptureIT. It was the first time many had collected data in this way, and it  enabled services to evidence the impact of their activities. This is increasingly important during a time of both austerity and growing demand – with libraries facing both cuts and an influx of jobseekers and other service users needing support to access online services.

  1. By contributing to channel shift and moving people from face to face or telephone services, libraries can help save significant amounts of money

We identified potential savings to local and national government in the areas where the 16 library services participating in the project are located. Based on what we know about the way our learners shift from using face-to-face and telephone services to online channels, we would expect potential cost savings of more than £800,000 per year just through the project beneficiaries alone. If similar low-scale activities to those which took place throughout the project were implemented across all 151 library services in England, a potential £7.5 million per year of cost savings could be achieved.

  1. Libraries’ experience in managing volunteers is invaluable in delivering effective digital inclusion support

Libraries’ experience of coordinating teams of volunteers was vital in providing the often high levels of support new and vulnerable learners required. 75% of the Library Research Partners recruited volunteers as Digital Champions to increase their capacity to deliver digital skills and 25% recruited student volunteers, from local educational institutions, such as colleges and universities, who provided intergenerational one-to-one support.

In conclusion, libraries have great potential to support digital inclusion activities and this report highlights how by doing so benefits people, communities, and in the end – libraries themselves.

For more insights, take a look at the full report on the Tinder Foundation website.

Sharon Wagg is Research Coordinator at Tinder Foundation

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