A Unique Partnership: Libraries and State Leadership Leading Digital Equity Efforts in North Carolina

Posted by North Carolina Broadband Infrastructure Office on June 30, 2017 at 8:51 AM

The State of North Carolina is working to ensure that high-speed internet access is available and digital equity is promoted through digital literacy programming and opportunities at all libraries by 2020. Yet, just over 50 percent of the 385 community-supported public libraries in the state provide high-speed access to patrons in their buildings. And efforts to increase digital literacy skills among patrons can be inconsistent amongst and burdensome to the libraries.

To overcome these barriers and accomplish the goals set forth in the State Broadband Plan, the Broadband Infrastructure Office (BIO) of the Department of Information and Technology and the State Librarian’s Office have established a unique partnership and several strategies to enhance broadband access, adoption, and digital literacy in NC. Strategies include:

  1. Encouraging communities to leverage creative public-private partnerships and experiment with new technologies
  2. Expanding the number of libraries using E-Rate funds for Internet access, and
  3. Establishing a new position at the State Library dedicated to supporting libraries in teaching digital literacy skills to patrons

Several North Carolina public libraries have already initiated innovative programs or partnerships like offering Mi-Fi (mobile Wi-Fi) devices for patrons to checkout to access the internet at home or are investigating the use of “white space” or television broadcast spectrum to provide wireless connections outside their buildings. The partners intend to highlight innovative strategies like these so other communities and libraries can replicate or build upon them.

The partners also are working to encourage the libraries to join a consortium to maximize federal E-Rate funds to serve the libraries with higher, cheaper speeds by leveraging the State’s procurement contract with internet service providers (ISPs) and administrative assistance for the RFP and E-Rate application processes.  A potential secondary benefit is seeking financial assistance for consortium members to cover the costs after the E-Rate discount.

But increasing access to the libraries and their patrons is insufficient in ensuring that the benefits found through internet use are realized by all. Even with greater opportunities for connectivity, North Carolina’s primary broadband challenge is the adoption of the technology itself in the state’s households. In 2014, the FCC estimated at least 90 percent of North Carolina households had access to internet service of at least 25 megabits per second (mbps) download. Meanwhile, the state’s adoption rate ranks 40th out of 45 reporting states with merely 16 percent of households subscribed at the 25 mbps threshold.

Through a study we conducted in 2014, we found that several factors contribute to low adoption rates, including cost, digital literacy, and relevancy (connecting its benefits with a person’s daily life). We've learned people will not adopt broadband without education and outreach initiatives. And based on their respected and essential status in communities, we believe the local public library can offer a lift over all three hurdles.

Digital literacy and relevancy present more amorphous problems with less identifiable solutions, but libraries offer a no-cost opportunity for people to realize the benefits of an internet connection. This includes completing homework assignments, submitting job applications, and locating information about community and government-based services.

The North Carolina state librarian and BIO are pursuing the creation of a position within the State Library to lead digital literacy efforts in libraries statewide. This person would be tasked with locating and compiling digital literacy resources, creating community-based digital literacy and adoption programs for libraries, and dispersing best practices in bridging the digital divide to libraries. In so doing, they’d relieve the burden placed on each individual library to develop curriculum and programs to increase digital literacy. In other words, the new position’s primary goal would be to support the libraries as they do what they've always done—help their patrons discover and learn new things.

We believe librarians as digital literacy educators fits perfectly with the role librarians currently serve but that many libraries do not have the resources to develop. Creating a role within an existing, trusted entity like the State Library relieves the burden of creating individual lessons and programming at each library and will provide ongoing support, education, and expertise for the libraries to leverage.

No single government entity can solve the remote residential broadband challenge, but North Carolina believes that by joining forces, BIO and the State Library can encourage communities to leverage an existing community asset—the library—to maximize opportunities for residents who don't currently access the internet because of cost, literacy or relevancy barriers. 

Amy Huffman
Research Specialist, Broadband Infrastructure Office
Division of Information and Technology
North Carolina Broadband

Jeffrey Sural
Division of Information and Technology
North Carolina Broadband

Cal Shepard
State Librarian
State Library of North Carolina

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