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New Voices RGU Student Series: Sam Ryan

Category: New Voices

This blog is posted as part of our New Voices RGU Student Series, where we are publishing blogs written by Robert Gordon University Information and Library Studies Students as part of their coursework.

About the writer: My name is Sam. I’m currently studying full-time for a postgraduate qualification in Information and Library Studies at Robert Gordon University. Prior to this, I worked as a Library Assistant in academic libraries

Bridging the digital divide: pubic librarians and digital skills

Digital literacy is an essential life skill. As The European Commission (2017) recognises, it comprises several capabilities, including critical thinking and problem solving, that are necessary to engage in the digital information society.

The American Library Association (2019) notes that this involves “cognitive and technical skills required to find, evaluate, create and communicate information”. This is especially relevant to everyday life and citizenship. Take this list of everyday tasks produced by the Open University (2018). The role of digital literacy in satisfying them is obvious. Equally, Emmer and Kunst (2018) demonstrate how digital literacy can instill citizenship by enabling ethical participation in a democratic society.

Yet, many people are lacking in such fundamental competencies. The Office for National Statistics (2019) outlines disparities resulting from factors including age, class, gender, and race. This is detrimental to digital equality in everyday life and citizenship.

The role of public librarians

Libraries are well-placed to support social and democratic participation through empowering the use of digital tools. An Axiel report (2017) found that 97% of people believe public librarians can help reduce digital exclusion. Numerous real-world case-studies support this argument, including Thurrock Libraries (2019) initiative aimed at increasing the everyday ICT skills of those digitally excluded due to age, and Libraries NI ‘Digital Citizen’ scheme aimed at addressing unequal digital civic engagement (Kelly, 2019).

However, individual cases cannot detract from wider inconsistencies. Axiel also found that 79% of people question whether public libraries are equipped to enable digital literacy. A range of factors contribute to this uncertainty. Ultimately public librarians are restricted by their own lack of expertise as well as wider professional and economic restraints. For this reason, digital literacy provision is dependent upon individual and institutional circumstances.


Two primary factors stand out as preventing the development of an established strategy.

Firstly, context is significant. In Thurrock and Northern Ireland, for example, local government has acknowledged the importance of public libraries and invested in digital programs. Elsewhere though financial cuts have limited the resources available to librarians. Unison (2013) exposes the rapid decline in IT equipment and library staff. Though this is not an inherent weakness of public libraries or librarians, it is an overarching external challenge that cannot be overstated.

Secondly, we must consider the actual competencies of public librarians. Martzoukou and Elliott (2016) identity deficiencies in their digital skills and wider knowledge, caused partly by the absence of formal digital training in library school courses. In order to facilitate digital literacy skills in others, librarians need a firm pedagogical, philosophical, and technological grounding in which to frame their instruction. Practical on- the- job skills alone cannot suffice.


Considering budgeting constraints, formal organisational digital literacy frameworks are required. Crucially they must define not only what digital literacy is, but where everyday life and citizenship fall within it, and what the role of librarians is in facilitating and enabling it. Once established, libraries can devise cross-departmental policies that allow librarians to understand what their responsibilities are in working with digitally excluded users and what resources are at their disposal. In many academic libraries such policies already exist, including Ulster University (2017); it is essential that public libraries and local authorities replicate it.

Regarding training, professional bodies ought to take the lead. CILIP (2019) has made progress, including maintaining a directory of training opportunities, but these are amalgamed with generic information literacy programs. Ultimately a more holistic plan is needed, requiring a shift in attitude from what Inskip (2018, p.4.) calls the “informationist to the technologist”, even then though some public librarians will surely remain uncomfortable tackling non-traditional matters like citizenship and everyday life. Along with revising library school programs, a continuous professional development focus upon engaging with digitally excluded users will be pivotal.

So, while one cannot doubt the potential of public librarians as facilitators and enablers of digital skills for the digitally excluded, there are still obstacles to be overcome.


AMERICAN LIBRARY ASSOCIATION. 2019. Digital literacy (online). Available from [accessed 17th October 2019)

AXIELL UK. 2017. A review of UK libraries in 2017: A guide for delivering sustainable, community-centric services (online). Available from [accessed 17 October 2019)

CILIP INFORMATION LITERACY GROUP. 2019. Training opportunities (online). Available from [ accessed 17th October 2019]

EMMER, M, AND KUNST, M. 2018. “Digital Citizenship” revisited: The impact of ICT on citizens’ political communication beyond the Western state (online). International Journal of Communication 13. Available at [accessed 17th October 2019]

EUROPEAN COMMISION JOINT RESEARCH CENTRE. 2017. The Digital Competence Framework for Citizens with eight proficiency levels and examples of use (DIGCOMP) (online). Available from  [ accessed 17th October 2019]

INSKIP, C. 2018.  Developing library staff digital literacies (online). Available from [accessed 17th October 2019)

KELLY, P. 2019. The Digital Citizen project: Get Online Stay Connected (online). Available from [accessed 17th October 2019)

MARTZOUKOU, K, AND ELLIOTT, J. 2016. The development of digital literacy and inclusion skills of public librarians (online). Communications in Information Literacy, 10 (1), pp. 99-115. Available from [accessed 17th October 2019)

OFFICE FOR NATIONAL STATISTICS. 2019. Exploring the UK’s digital divide (online). Available from [accessed 17th October 2019)

OPEN UNIVERSITY. 2018. Digital literacy: succeeding in a digital world (online). Available from [accessed 17th October 2019]

THURROCK COUNCIL. 2019. Learning at your library (online). Available from [accessed 17th October 2019)

ULSTER UNIVERSITY. 2017. Ulster University Library digital and information literacy strategy 2017-2021 (online). Available from (accessed 17th October 2019)

UNISON. 2013. The public library service under attack (online). Available from [accessed 17th October 2019)

Additional bibliography

COHRON, M. 2015. The continuing digital divide in the United States. The Serials Librarian, 69 (1), pp. 77. 86.

GOOD THINGS FOUNDATION AND SIMEON YATES. 2017. The real digital divide? Understanding the demographics of non-users and limited users of the internet: an analysis of Ofcom data (online). Available from [accessed 17th October 2019)

LOMAX, K. 2018. Digital literacy in libraries: joining the dots (online). Available from [accessed 17th October 2019)

MCSHANE, I. 2011. Public libraries, digital literacy, and participatory culture. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 32 (3), pp. 383-397.

UNESCO. 2018. A global framework of reference on digital literacy skills for indicator 4.4.2 (online). Available from [accessed 17th October 2019)

**The views expressed in our guest blogs are the writer’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of CILIPS**

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