Generally when we talk about the Digital Divide, we’re talking about the disparities in use and access to the Internet and other digital resources – primarily due to income, education, and/or geography. In April last year the Pew Research Center / Pew Internet Project released a comprehensive report on the Digital Divide – Digital differences – a survey based analysis of who’s using the Internet and how/where they’re accessing it. While absolute trends have changed as the technologies have changed, The US is still faced with 20% of its adult population not using the Internet – though half of that is a choice, not a circumstance.
As librarians, we at the Carnegie and libraries around the country help overcome the digital divide on regular basis; running the spectrum of users from those who become self-sufficient to varying degrees, and those for whom the mouse and PC are the tools of the devil, wholly unclean and not to be touched. I also regularly work with others for whom there is another variety of the digital divide; one that determines their future course of work and changes their otherwise comfortable relationship with the library, its librarians, and greatly challenges their 21st Century assumptions. This divide occupies a narrow spectrum of information – that which isn’t available online – no way, no how.
Isn’t everything available online? No, it isn’t. Generally speaking, most of what the average library user asks for is available online; maybe in a full-text database, perhaps in a published government document, possibly in a curated digitized collection, and of course in e-books. There are also some standard tools like the USPTO’s patent search engine with accompanying displays, and one of my favorites – Google Earth. Of course we’re also positioned, and more importantly trained, to help our users with the non-digital resources they need. Sometimes we need to do things as if it’s 1970, and that’s not necessarily a given for many students and other library users. We’ve all become comfortable with both the actual access and the assumption of access that “our” information is a click away.
The danger with that assumption is two-fold. The first will be the conclusion after an unsuccessful search that the information you’re seeking doesn’t exist – if it’s not digital, ipso-facto, it hasn’t been created. The second concern, and maybe the more prevalent one, is that knowing it doesn’t exist electronically simply drives the user to an electronic source that they make meet their need, even if it’s a tertiary (or worse) source. Just because most of what you might seek is available online, that doesn’t mean it all is, or that the best of it is, and that is why you can always Ask a Librarian.