First Monday

They Threw Me a Computer ... But What I Really Needed Was a Life Preserver, by Anthony G. Wilhelm

Libraries and museums have a central role to play in ensuring that all Americans are able to access and use effectively emerging communications tools, such as the Internet. These institutions are key pillars of the public sphere of communications, the realm of civil society independent of government and commercial forces that provides citizens the tools to become full participants in republican self-government. This paper identifies four attributes of the digital divide -- literacy, access, content and training -- and discusses the role of libraries and museums in cultivating each of these capacities. The central thrust of the paper is that there are comprehensive solutions to bridge the divide (in the realization of these four elements) where the technological component is necessary but not sufficient to move the truly disadvantaged into the mainstream of American life.


Protecting the Public Sphere of Communications
Drinking from a Firehose: Developing Comprehensive Literacy Skills
Access for All: An Unfinished Project
What is that Computer Doing in My Classroom?
When Will the Web Look Like America?
High Touch First, High Tech Second




Thanks very much, Beverly, for allowing me the distinct honor of delivering the keynote address for this year's Web-Wise conference. It's truly a privilege to join such a distinguished group of library and museum leaders who are spearheading some of the most innovative work in the country in advancing what we at Benton call the "public sphere of communications."



Protecting the Public Sphere of Communications

The public sphere of communication is the constellation of institutions - libraries, museums, human services organizations, public broadcasting, community networks, and the like - whose core work centers on advancing the public interest in the digital age. What is the public interest? A difficult concept. One that eludes simple definition, like any great idea, but one without which we would be depleted and cheapened as a society. In a speech on the coming of age of South Africa in the Digital Era, Nelson Mandela suggests that the development of a truly participatory information society must be based on the values of "justice, freedom and democracy." [1] Advancing the public interest is thus intertwined with the pursuit of our most cherished values. As Walt Whitman suggested in Leaves of Grass, "I speak the password primeval ... I give the sign of democracy/By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms."

It is the exploration of this ongoing quest to realize the public interest that will provide the backdrop for my remarks this morning. In the foreground will be a specific focus on bridging the digital divide. Whitman's poem suggests an important attribute of public goods: that they be available to all on equal terms. And if Whitman was alive today, then he would be familiar with the term economists use to express his sentiment: nonexcludability. What is important about public goods is that they are available to all - often for free - and institutions whose mission is to promote the public interest strive to make their services available to all, oftentimes predicating their success on their ability to reach those citizens on the margins of American society. Thus public goods can be distinguished from private goods that are available solely to those consumers with the means of securing them on terms established by market forces.

Where somebody comes down in resolving the digital divide - the gap between those who have access to and can effectively use information technologies and those who cannot - depends in part on whether you see access to essential information and communications tools as a core component to full participation in American democracy - and thus an essential public good - or just one more utility or appliance, such as a television or refrigerator, that is possessed as an excludable good. Is the resolution of the digital divide one more consumer decision? Or is there an affirmative role for the public sphere and government to ensure an equal playing field?

The Benton Foundation has a longstanding commitment to libraries and museums as key actors in fulfilling the public sphere of communication, the intersection of institutions dedicated to public service. Libraries have a fundamental role in realizing the values of justice, freedom and democracy in the emerging communications environment. The connections between our institutions are longstanding. In 1978, President Carter appointed Benton Foundation Chairman, Charles Benton, as Chairman of the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science (NCLIS) and as Chairman of the first White House Conference on Library and Information Services, held in November 1979. In 1980, Mr. Benton was re-appointed for an additional five-year term, during which time he was elected Chairman Emeritus by a unanimous vote of NCLIS commissioners. More recently, our work in the late 1990s with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation probed the important relationship of public opinion and library leaders' visions for the future. The fruits of this partnership was the development of a toolkit for library professionals called "The Future's in the Balance" to help media professionals in particular make the strongest case possible for libraries' central relevance in the Digital Era. Finally, our Open Studio partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts has allowed Benton to make small seed grants to art-serving organizations around the nation, many of whom partner with museums and libraries in order to expand connectivity in the arts community, to stimulate a wider community to see arts and cultural institutions as community resources, and to cultivate participation of the arts in the digital world.

One exciting project involving an Open Studio training site, to give you a flavor for what I am talking about, is called Virtual Chautauqua, a partnership of 13 Colorado arts, education and telecommunications organizations using streaming technologies to bring performing arts to rural areas ( The program was jumpstarted with a grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce. The Open Studio training site, the Colorado Council on the Arts, supports training and assistance for both audience members and artists with disabilities.

As I mentioned we share with other institutions within the third sector a commitment to a shared public life, the fundamental prerequisites for which are that everyone has access to and the ability to use essential information and communications tools. There are two schools of thought on the current diffusion of information technologies. One school of thought suggests that the distribution of information technology will likely reinforce if not exacerbate existing inequalities in society. Others believe technology is the great leveler. We know that the proliferation of the printing press in the sixteenth century spawned the steady spread of the public sphere, leading relatively quickly to surprisingly high levels of popular literacy and new public spaces in which politics could finally become an object of discussion and debate [2]. The question today from the perspective of democratic culture is what forms of practice do the Internet and new communications technologies engender that will strengthen our democracy, particularly the voices of the disenfranchised?

Everyday we hear that multinational corporations are flattening the diversity of world culture, creating homogeneity, consumerism, and entertainment [3]. Meanwhile museums are harnessing the potential of technology to preserve culture. Earlier this month, I visited the Picuris Pueblo, nestled in the hidden valley of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of Northern New Mexico, where the Picuris have lived virtually continuously since the thirteenth century. Called the pikuria by their neighbors to the South - meaning "those who paint" - the tribe's cultural heritage, including their language, Tiwa, is largely passed down orally. The threat exists that over time the tribe's culture will be displaced unless a way is discovered to preserve and protect language and culture. The National Indian Telecommunications Institute, a nonprofit organization in Santa Fe, is working with Indian nations to harness the potential of technology to preserve language. For example, they are working with the Comanche Tribe to create a dictionary, complete with multimedia vocabulary and pronunciation guides. While tribes are becoming intrigued with the possibilities the technology affords, they lack the hardware, software and training to use information technology effectively to preserve their cultural heritage.

In short, many promising examples exist of how museums and libraries are setting high expectations for this medium, the Internet, which we are inventing as we go along. But first we must ensure that we resolve the digital divide, so that all communities will have sufficient access to tools that are becoming integral to full participation in American society.

The four themes that encompass this year's Web-Wise meeting are truly the right ingredients for success in ensuring that this is a medium for everyone. Literacy, access, training and content are certainly the four legs on which full participation in the information society rests. If there is one thing we have learned in the past several years, it is that access alone is not enough, particularly for hard-to-serve communities whose limited literacy residents face major barriers to effective use of the technology. Closing the digital divide will take our collective resolve and a renewed commitment to building basic literacy as well as community content that meets our diverse needs.



Drinking from a Firehose: Developing Comprehensive Literacy Skills

Rather than embracing and defending a buzz word - such as "computer literacy," "information literacy," or "digital literacy" - a debate that seems to have limited utility - I would like to spend a couple of minutes actually operationalizing the set of skills, competencies, and knowledge that constitutes essential literacy in a modern society. It is undisputable that without basic literacy, access to technology is virtually meaningless. At the very basic level we know that reading by the third grade is a major predictor of future educational success, and thus reading at early grades becomes an important early marker for developing literacy skills. The role of libraries in promulgating reading - for example among preschoolers - becomes critical.

The American public makes a powerful connection between libraries and effective parenting, according to the public opinion and focus group research we conducted as part of our Future's in the Balance toolkit [4]. Americans view the act of going to the library with one's children as a demonstration of good parenting. The library therefore is an affirmation of traditional values. Even the young adults in our focus groups looked forward to the day when they could take their children to the library. This finding should support libraries' resolve to promote online parenting and literacy information and to take advantage of the times when adults accompany children to offer new high-tech services and to help parents guide their children to responsible Internet use. Libraries are perfectly situated to deliver the message that the new library is the old library - rooted in books and reading - plus something more. In short, the library is high-touch first, high-tech second and plays a critical role in building basic literacy skills.

Beyond the deficits in basic literacy and the need for society to redouble its efforts to focus on early childhood development, functional illiteracy affects as many as one in five Americans. This means that many adults lack the ability to apply their basic literacy skills to daily activities, such as filling out job applications or reading product labels. Adults as well as young people must learn both how to put their basic reading and writing skills into context and how to utilize their skills on an ongoing basis in order to develop functional fluency.

Computer literacy or more generally technology literacy is a fairly recognizable skill set and is defined as the ability to utilize common information technology tools, including hardware, software, and Internet tools. Technology literacy is becoming essential, since it is believed that 60-70 percent of jobs now require some familiarity with IT [5]. Even entry-level jobs in the service sector and manufacturing require some technology literacy, spurring companies such as Ford Motor Company and Delta Airlines to provide computers to their employees [6]. Since technology is constantly changing, it sometimes seems that developing technology literacy is a little like trying to jump over our own shadows. Technology morphs so rapidly that underserved Americans in particular must run fast often in order to stay in the same place. There is a premium on adaptability and the ability to update continuously one's technology skill sets in order to stay afloat in the flood of technological change.

The Benton Foundation, the American Library Association, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and AOL/Time-Warner are partnering in a soon-to-be-released Public Service Announcement campaign in which we are targeting underserved teens with the message that everyone should know the basics, including how to use a computer. The thought here is that we cannot roll back the information revolution. Information technology in certain arenas is quickly closing down the print culture. For example, with electronic benefits transfer, American residents who rely on cash assistance and welfare must learn how to swipe a card and use an automatic cash teller in order to access their entitlement. Thus technology literacy becomes critical to access basic services or to find a job.

Another skill entails managing the quantity of information that interfacing with the Internet demands. In these early years of Internet browsers, we are in a sense drinking from a firehose, unable to sort and absorb the volume of information available online. Unlike traditional media, such as television or newspapers, which pre-package and digest information, the disintermediation wrought by the Internet means that there is an onus on the part of individuals to control and manage the flow of information.

We are already witnessing the phenomenon that Web users trust online news sources more than print or broadcast news sources, according to data from the Pew Internet and American Life Project. Citizens gauge the quality of online information as fairly high, and thus they must resort to critical information literacy skills to separate the wheat from the chaff. The role of trusted sources - new intermediaries, information aggregators, and navigators - becomes essential. Our research shows that the librarian's role as "information navigator" becomes essential in helping users confront these formidable challenges.

In addition to the volume of information coming through increasingly fatter pipes, the quality of this information runs the gamut. Citizens interested in the latest and most reliable information on say child development will conduct searches that will surface everything from the latest research from the New England Journal of Medicine to the most dubious renditions of nineteenth century phrenology studies from neo-Nazi and other hate groups. Thus individuals and learning communities will need to be equipped with the literacy skills to judge accuracy, bias and timeliness in the information retrieved from the Internet. In Jane Healy's book Failure to Connect she quotes a high-school teacher from New York who sums up this challenge: "There's all this emphasis on kids having all this information at their fingertips, with this blind naïve assumption that they'll know what to do with it." [7]

Citizens will need to go one step further and possess the skills to apply all this information to their everyday needs and interests. The legal aid community for example is developing portals of self-help information for low-income communities to use in order to become better acquainted with their rights and entitlements, from social services, to fair housing to predatory loan practices. These information sites are critical, but we must be careful that self-help does not displace the need for caregivers, more public interest lawyers, more well-trained social workers, and the like who can navigate citizens from disadvantaged backgrounds through a system in which well-heeled interests and accumulated environmental disadvantage often stack the deck against them.

Clearly what the literacy discussion highlights is the need to go beyond a discussion of "back to basics" when we talk about education. Lifelong learning is really the catch phrase that best captures the approach I have outlined, with a particular attention to the set of basic, functional, technological, information and adaptive literacies that individuals need to become fuller participants in this complex modern society.



Access for All: An Unfinished Project

The value of the Internet as a communications tool is defined in part by the number of participants who can contribute to the never-ending discussions that comprise the Internet. This phenomenon is called "network effects," which means that the value of a network increases by the square of its users. As of 2000, 95% of library outlets are providing public access to the Internet, [8] and 97% of K-12 schools now have some sort of connection to the outside world [9]. About 43% of homes are wired [10]. More and more people are using computers and the Internet at work, from dot-commers to Marriott employees. Companies have begun to give computers and Internet connections as perks and even cities have found a way to partner with industry to provide Internet for all, such as La Grange, Georgia.

Adoption rates are increasing so rapidly that some people have said that there is no real social problem: everybody will be online by 2010, so what is all the fuss about? This optimistic portrait hides a less attractive underside. Education, income, occupation, geography, race, ethnicity, age, and disability are all fault lines that separate haves from have-nots in terms of access. According to the most recent U.S. Department of Commerce data:

Notwithstanding price points coming down for computers and free Internet accounts, enormous gaps remain that require ongoing vigilance on the part of policymakers. Free computers have no more solved the problem of digital exclusion than welfare reform has cured urban poverty. The reason is clear: The worst off in our society continue to lack the fundamental resources, skills, and competencies to use essential information and communications tools effectively to advance their interests.



What is that Computer Doing in My Classroom?

For every dollar we spend on hardware, the professional development, support, and training needs of staff increase geometrically. This is the lesson we learned at Benton from researching the impact the E-rate was having on urban schools [11]. Although classrooms were finally getting the hardware they thought they needed to keep up with the pace of change, few teachers had undergone the training to use these tools to effect student achievement. When I was doing research several years ago evaluating the impact of the E-rate and other state technology grants in a small, rural South Texas school district, one of my interviews was with the school librarian. She had taught at the school for many years. When I asked her about the influx of computers, she was not at all heartened. While she did not deride the new order per se, she talked with hesitation, more of a skeptic than an agnostic in technology matters. She alerted me that she indeed was retiring and signaled that she would leave her library to younger, more technology-fluent mavens. The truth emerged upon further investigation that these computers had been dropped off in hers and other teachers' classrooms without their full knowledge or consent. There was little thought given to the fact that many teachers had never or only rarely used a computer, and their attitudes ranged from outright trepidation to an air of hostility, as if their tried and true teaching methods were somehow under assault. Very little professional development in integrating technology into classroom instruction had taken place to ratchet up their skills. And the general sentiment was that they would adapt and that their classrooms would never again be the same.

All around us we see that we have now invested enormous resources in hardware and software - just getting institutions up to speed - but we have greatly underestimated the need for professional development and training in order for the technology to live up to its potential. Sixty-six percent of all teachers in public schools, for example, now use technology for classroom instruction; yet only 10% feel very well prepared to use computers and the Internet in their teaching.

Librarians also face a stiff challenge, since they will also manage the public's transition to competent use of new information tools. While existing funding commitments must be preserved with respect to E-rate, a national commitment to train lifelong-learning professionals is essential to leverage the enormous investment we have made as a nation in hardware. With $2.25 billion flowing annually into libraries and classrooms due to E-rate discounts, we will need a substantial investment for staff training and the creation of learning communities that can tackle the need for staff to update their competencies continually to keep pace with the latest applications.



When Will the Web Look Like America?

We know that to a certain extent the value of the Internet for underserved populations and cultural minorities is directly related to their ability to create, find and utilize content that is relevant to their diverse interests. The value of the high-speed Internet for end users is defined less by the speed of the network and more by the content that travels through these pipes. Companies that are marketing high-speed services to nonprofits as well as consumers are already realizing that you cannot sell speed qua speed. Organizations want to know what sorts of value-added applications are possible through these broadband connections. What can I do with broadband that I can't do with narrowband? Clearly for museums and libraries, speed is critical, but end users mainly want high-quality, dependable, relevant and convenient services delivered through these channels. Students in the Toledo, Ohio public schools, for example, are benefiting from the installation of distance learning equipment by taking a "virtual field trip" to the Cleveland Museum of Art to reinforce what they are learning in their classroom about ancient Egypt. Museum curators responsible for the Egyptomania exhibition at CMA prepared teachers at West Toledo's Larchmont School for the distance learning experience. The student's teacher, Robin Gerkensmeyer, expressed satisfaction with the experience: "I'm absolutely amazed by the whole process, and the kids really seemed to enjoy it."

One problem with content on the Internet is that it is hard to locate information that is relevant to all groups in the U.S., particularly since there will soon be as many Web pages as people on the planet. A recent report from the Santa Monica, California-based Children's Partnership suggests there are several areas in which content on the Web is severely lacking. In brief, there is not enough

Clearly one of the great potentials of the Web - and this enormous time of migration toward digital technologies - is in fostering new community content partnerships. What the Web affords is for everyone to be a producer and not just a passive consumer of the media. Youth in particular are extremely adept at using multimedia, and youth-directed media centers, such as HarlemLive in New York City and Street Level Youth in Chicago, both present locally relevant content through the eyes of young people, a radical departure from the practices of existing commercial broadcast media.

An ambitious study of the relationship between media and community in Los Angeles conducted by the University of Southern California's Annenberg School called Project Metamorphosis suggests that local media storytelling matters most when it comes to building strong communities. Mainstream media in many instances undermine community - particularly commercial television, in contributing to isolation, negative self-image, and the perpetuation of stereotypes,particularly targeting minority communities and the inner city.

Benton's recently released report "Connecting Communities" examining content partnerships between community institutions and public broadcasting reveals potentially innovative work at the local level where public and private institutions are connecting in new ways to revitalize communities and deliver programming and services that meet needs unmet by the existing media landscape.

What "Connecting Communities" reveals is a load of potential innovation occurring at the local level. The major problem is that few people know what other communities are doing to re-invent public media. The companion video we produced to accompany the report serves to explore the possibilities and the potential window of opportunity that the transition to digital media affords.



High Touch First, High Tech Second

Benton's research on libraries over the past several years reveals that a minority of the public sees these institutions as part and parcel of a bygone era. One library user put it this way: "If you plopped a library down ... 30 years from now ... there would be cobwebs growing everywhere because people would look at it and wouldn't think of it as a legitimate institution because it would be so far behind." [12] This sentiment is extant among the public and is strengthened as new institutions crop up to provide many of the services traditionally under the purview of libraries. Thousands of community technology centers have recently cropped up which are particularly popular among youth, many of which are dedicated to the principle that young people should design and construct their own relationship to learning. Libraries and museums must pay particular attention to ways in which they can capture the attention of young people - future supporters of these institutions - and yet the most likely cohort to bypass them.

High touch becomes essential in an age of high tech. From research with severely disadvantaged teenagers - those we label "at risk" - we see that technology is an important hook in maintaining their interest in learning, but it is the social and human dimensions that are primary. One project in New York City, called Project TELL, involved providing a group of at-risk teenagers access to the Internet in the home. This group was tracked over several years against a control group that did not enjoy access to the Internet. The report revealed that for the less resilient children among those severely at risk that technology was not the appropriate intervention for this cohort.

The digital divide is the latest catch phrase that embodies many longstanding social ills, none of which is amenable to a technological solution. Technology will play an important role but it cannot displace fundamental human connections. As one of our focus group participants revealed in Building, Books, and Bytes, "you can take your kid to the library, but you can't take your kid to a website." This is the enduring challenge facing libraries and museums: to create experiences that quench our desire for inquiry and community. As the poet Yeats says, "education is not the filling of a pale but the lighting of a fire." Rekindling this fire is the fundamental challenge before us and goes to the very heart of what it means to be human. Thank you very much. End of article


About the Author

Tony Wilhelm is director of the Communications Policy Program at the Benton Foundation, an organization dedicated to advancing the public-interest values of access, diversity, education, and equity in the emerging digital media landscape. His book Democracy in the Digital Age (New York: Routledge, 2000) explores the potential threats to democracy posed by emerging communications technologies.



1. Nelson Mandela, "Remarks Made at the TELECOM 95 Conference," Trotter Review, volume 9, number 2 (1995/1996), pp. 4-6.

2. David Zaret, Origins of Democratic Culture. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000.

3. Dan Schiller, Digital Capitalism: Networking the Global Market Systems. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000.

4. Benton Foundation, "The Future's in the Balance: A Toolkit for Libraries and Communities in the Digital Age," Washington D.C.: Benton Foundation, 1998.

5. U.S. Government Working Group on Electronic Commerce, "Delivering on Digital Progress and Prosperity," Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of Commerce, 2000.

6. Bay Area Video Coalition, "From Promising Practices to Promising Futures: Job Training in Information Technology for Disadvantaged Adults," San Francisco: BAVC, 2000.

7. Jane M. Healy, Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds - For Better and Worse. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998, p. 251.

8. National Commission on Libraries and Information Science, "Public Libraries and the Internet 2000: Summary Findings and Data Tables," Washington D.C.: NCLIS, 2000.

9. National Center for Education Statistics, "Internet Access in U.S. Public Schools and Classrooms: 1994-99," Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, 2000.

10. U.S. Department of Commerce, "Falling through the Net: Toward Digital Inclusion," Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of Commerce, 2000.

11. Benton Foundation, The E-rate in America: A Tale of Four Cities. Washington D.C.: Benton Foundation, 2000.

12. Benton Foundation, Building, Books, and Bytes: Libraries and Communities in the Digital Age. Washington D.C.: Benton Foundation, 1996, p. 3.

Editorial history

Paper received 8 March 2001; accepted 16 March 2001.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2001, First Monday

They Threw Me a Computer ... But What I Really Needed Was a Life Preserver, by Anthony G. Wilhelm
First Monday, volume 6, number 4 (April 2001),