Libraries Connected—written evidence (DCL0033)

 

House of Lords Communications and Digital Select Committee inquiry ‘Digital exclusion and the cost of living

 

About Libraries Connected

Libraries Connected is an independent charity that supports, promotes and represents all public library services in England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and the Crown Dependencies. Our work builds on 20 years’ experience as the Society of Chief Librarians and today our audience extends beyond heads of public library services to all library workers in the public sector. We are an Arts Council England Sector Support Organisation, offering advice, advocacy and expertise in the organisation and delivery of public library services.

 

This submission is based on the experience of our members (heads of library services) and particularly the work of the Information and Digital universal library offer (ULO) group, led by Dave Lloyd, Service Development Manager at Coventry Libraries and Information Service.

 

Libraries Connected would welcome the opportunity to give oral evidence to this inquiry, alongside representatives of library services and other organisations in the public libraries sector.

 

Libraries and digital exclusion

Libraries have been at the forefront of tackling digital exclusion for many years. There are approximately 4,000 libraries across the UK, over 90% of which provide digital skills support.[1] This includes:

 

 

The library network is ideally placed to provide this support. Librarians are among the most trusted professions, second only to nurses[2], and libraries are welcoming, non-judgmental spaces – for those lacking digital confidence, or feeling embarrassed by their lack of skills, these are hugely important factors.

 

The central role of libraries in tackling digital exclusion has been acknowledged in the government’s UK Digital Strategy[3], which states that “public libraries play an important and inclusive role in making sure everyone can access the digital economy”. The strategy also praises libraries ability to overcome “the combined barriers of skills, confidence, and motivation, by offering skills training and user support”.

 

As libraries are the statutory responsibility of the local authority, the level and range of digital support can vary widely across the country. While all library services offer PC access and basic IT support, many also provide a higher level of help for those with low or no digital skills – for examples as members of the Digital Champions Network, through which trained volunteers provide digital skills support in libraries.

 

Some larger library services have dedicated digital development librarians delivering ambitious multi-strand digital projects, eg #Digital121 - a comprehensive programme of digital support offered through Leeds Libraries. These are usually delivered in partnership with a number of other organisations.

 

Our experience is that the majority of library users who seek digital skills support come with a specific task that needs to be completed: GP surgeries, Job Centres, County Courts and other council departments, particularly housing, regularly refer people to libraries for support in using digital services. These referrals have increased since the pandemic, when many council services became “digital by default”. In 75% of libraries, users access computers and receive staff help to find new jobs on all or most days. On all or most days, staff and PC access in over 70% of libraries support users with social inclusion, benefit applications and homework.[4]

 

It is important to note, however, that the value of libraries in addressing the digital divide is not limited to support with administrative and transactional tasks. Public libraries also have an important role in enabling the digitally excluded to enjoy the many social, emotional and cultural benefits of the online world. This could be streaming music, researching family history, borrowing ebooks or audiobooks, keeping in touch with family members abroad or picking up a new hobby through YouTube. Libraries can even offer opportunities to try cutting edge technology like VR in a supportive environment.[5] Many library services also offer access to expensive applications that are essential to the creative industries, such as Adobe Creative Cloud suite, Final Cut Pro and Logic Pro.

 

What are the main causes of digital exclusion in the UK? What is the economic and social impact?

From the experiences of our member libraries, there are three main barriers to digital inclusion: access (to equipment or data), skills (how to use equipment or applications) and motivation (not seeing any value in digital services). It is important to recognise that these barriers are not always linear or consistent: for example, someone may be highly skilled and confident in using a smartphone for entertainment but need support writing a CV on a PC. People need tailored support to overcome their own personal barriers – something libraries are experts at doing.

 

The experience of libraries is that the impact is of digital exclusion is wide-ranging. There is undoubtedly an economic penalty – one that has been exacerbated by the cost-of-living crisis – in being unable to shop around for the best prices and deals, use online banking, apply for benefits and search for jobs. Relatedly, those with low digital skills are at greater risk of falling victim to scams or mis- and disinformation when they do go online – which is why Libraries Connected believes online information literacy should be integral to efforts to tackle the digital divide. There is also a social and emotional cost as so much of contemporary life – relationships, entertainment, politics and the media – occurs in the online world.

 

Another growing area of concern is the impact of digital exclusion on the ability to access health services. With many health services now digital by default, public libraries are increasingly being asked to support users as they search for health information, submit repeat prescription requests, book GP and hospital appointments and view personal health records. Some libraries have teamed up with local GP practices to make this support smoother and more consistent.[6]

 

How has the rising cost of living affected digital exclusion?

To what extent does digital exclusion exacerbate cost of living pressures?

Feedback from our members suggests that the number of people seeking digital support in libraries has increased significantly as a result of the cost-of-living crisis. Library workers say this is due to people wanting help with using comparison sites, searching for energy efficient white goods and accessing payments or benefits (particularly the £150 council tax energy rebate, which was only paid automatically to those who paid their council tax by direct debit). There have also been reports of people using library equipment and data because they cannot afford broadband connections or up-to-date devices.

 

What are the long-term implications of this relationship?

The long term implications of this relationship are threefold: the digital divide will widen as access (equipment and data) becomes more expensive as a proportion of income; the household incomes of the digitally excluded are further squeezed through lack of access to money-saving opportunities; and those whose digital skills are already low find they are further excluded from the online world. This risks entrenching and perpetuating digital exclusion our communities.

 

What are the obstacles to greater digital inclusion? Where is policy intervention likely to have the greatest impact over the next 12 months and 5 years?

From the library sector’s perspective, the most impactful policy intervention in the next 12 months would be urgent investment in both equipment and dedicated digital support staff in every library service. Our members tell us that they often cannot meet the demand for digital support due to a lack of capacity. With libraries facing severe financial pressures, the risk is that equipment becomes out of date and cuts to staff (and opening hours) mean libraries are not able to provide the level of support that is needed.

 

Over the next five years we would like to see many more formal links between “digital by default” public services, particularly health, and libraries to ensure that those who are unable to access online services can be formally referred to their library or other online centre for one-to-one support.

 

There is also a very clear need for better data and evidence around libraries’ work on digital exclusion. While many library authorities already collect and use such data for their own internal planning, there is currently no central method to collate and aggregate this data.

 

More generally we would recommend a policy shift away from digital skills to digital wellbeing[7]. This is a more holistic approach to addressing the digital divide that reflects the important emotional, social and cultural factors involved; it also recognises that the digitally excluded are often disadvantaged in other ways – through age, mental health, disability – and will need other specialist support. As mentioned above, online information literacy is central to this concept, recognising that the digitally excluded are particularly vulnerable to scams, harmful online behaviours (eg gambling) and mis- or disinformation.

 

For these interventions to be successful, they require appropriate funding and policy support from central government.

 

To what extent would these changes help unlock economic growth?

These changes would make the digital support provided by libraries more effective and targeted, with improved partnership working between local services helping the most vulnerable access other help earlier on. There are two main economic advantages: firstly, by improving the employment and earning prospects of the digitally excluded, who are more likely to be jobseekers or on low incomes; and secondly through cost and efficiency savings for local services such as the NHS.

 

How effective are Government initiatives at addressing digital exclusion? What further action is needed, and what should be done to provide offline access to services?

We very much welcome the recognition of the public library sector’s role in tackling digital inclusion in the UK Digital Strategy. We are also greatly encouraged by the work of Baroness Sanderson, Chair of the new advisory panel on public libraries, who will be including digital literacy and access within the new National Libraries Strategy (and recently hosted a meeting on this subject with sector leaders). However, without urgent funding and long-term investment many library services will have no choice but to close branches and reduce opening hours over the coming years. While some larger digital inclusion projects in libraries are externally funded, generally the provision of computers, free wi-fi and ad hoc support comes from core budgets – as these are reduced, the quality, effectiveness and availability of digital skills support in libraries will also be diminished.

 

How well are existing industry initiatives (for example cheaper internet tariffs) addressing digital exclusion? How could they be enhanced?

We are supportive of “social tariffs” for broadband. However, as the Digital Poverty Alliance has pointed out[8], even a discounted broadband rate could be out of reach for those in receipt of Universal Credit. Take up of these tariffs is very low (around 3.2%) and we support Ofcom’s recommendation that providers should consider more targeted awareness raising for consumers most at risk of digital exclusion.[9] Public libraries could play a key role here by supporting users to access the reduced tariffs when they seek help.

 

How effective is civil society at supporting digital inclusion? How could this work be enhanced, and what is the appropriate balance between civil society and Government intervention?

Public libraries frequently work with civil society organisations on digital inclusion initiatives. Libraries may team up with their local Age UK to run digital taster sessions for older people, for example, or signpost PC users to charities that provide more specialist advice. Libraries are successful because they are embedded within their communities and are often at the heart of a network of charities, community groups and council services – this is particularly true for their digital inclusion role. In order to ensure consistency and quality of digital support across the library network, however, an appropriate and stable level of central government funding is essential – alongside a clear and ambitious strategy for digital inclusion that recognises the central role that libraries can play.

 

What lessons can the UK learn from abroad?

There are many impressive library-based digital inclusion initiatives around the world that the UK could learn from. We would draw the Committee’s attention particularly to the Digital Travellers project, a joint initiative led by Libraries Without Borders and library associations in France, Poland, Finland, Belgium and the Netherlands.[10]

 

 

March 2023

5

 


[1]              https://www.lorensbergs.co.uk/case-studies-and-resources/public-libraries-2022-netloan-customer-survey-results/

[2]              https://www.ipsos.com/en-uk/ipsos-veracity-index-trust-police-drops-second-year-row

[3]              https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/uks-digital-strategy/uk-digital-strategy

[4]              https://www.lorensbergs.co.uk/case-studies-and-resources/public-libraries-2022-netloan-customer-survey-results/

[5]              https://dcmslibraries.blog.gov.uk/2022/08/26/coventry-libraries-a-new-home-for-digital-culture/

[6]              https://www.oldham.gov.uk/news/article/2391/fitton_library_offering_digital_support_ to_patients_of_local_surgery

[7]              https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/sites/default/files/migrated/digital_inc_project_report_ a4_final.pdf),

[8]              https://digitalpovertyalliance.org/news-updates/tackling-digital-exclusion-cost-living-crisis/

[9]              https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0019/244513/2022-september-affordability-of-communications-services.pdf

[10]              https://www.digitaltravellers.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/DTE_policy_recommendations-1.pdf