When the pandemic first hit over two years ago, many of us experienced some bumps in the road transitioning to virtual work and school. But for many people in Denver, those bumps were more than inconveniences. They found themselves suddenly locked out of the work and school communities that others easily accessed virtually.
According to the 2019 American Community Survey, 13.7% of all Denver households are digitally disconnected. For BIPOC communities, those numbers are higher. Nearly 23% of Black households and nearly 21% of Latino households were digitally disconnected in 2018, compared to only 9% of Whites.
That’s why the work of Digital Inclusion Manager Tracy Treece and her team at Denver Public Library is so important. At the beginning of the pandemic, Denver Public Library began setting up laptops outside, so customers could still get online safely. In addition, they greatly increased the number of hotspots and Chromebooks available for checkout. Through remote technology support, DPL staff did their best to continue providing one-on-one technology help and classes.
As lockdowns continued, the staff started seeing a trend in who needed help and what help they needed.
“We started noticing that we were seeing fewer people, but people who needed more in-depth help,” Treece said.
As it has done since 1889, the library responded to the changing needs of the community – this time establishing the digital navigator program with funding from the first tranche of the city’s American Rescue Plan Act funding. In April 2022, the library’s four digital navigators, including one who works in the Mobile Services department, began meeting one-on-one with customers to address their technology needs, whether it was accessing home internet, finding an appropriate device for their household, or providing the training they needed to get online needs. Through the repeated interactions, customers build relationships with the digital navigators and can trust in the information they receive.
“Getting my original laptop and modem set up was very expensive, and it turns out I was sold products I didn’t need,” a customer who worked with the library’s digital navigators recently shared. “Having a place I know I can turn to that is reliable and honest is incredible. These services have allowed me to continue my employment.”
Since launching in March, the program has served over 300 customers, providing approximately 700 hours of one-on-one support. It’s also reaching the very communities that need it, with 73% of participants identifying as a race or ethnicity other than White. About 66% of participants are 50 and older.
The circulating technology program has been popular, too, with 1,580 customers borrowing a Chromebook, hotspot, or both over 2,400 times since February 2021.
Both the digital navigator and circulating technology programs are funded only through the end of 2022, and Treece and the library are exploring other funding sources. Financial and advocacy support from the Friends Foundation is one way to help keep these programs going.
Meanwhile, Denver Public Library is working locally and nationally to support digital inclusion efforts. Treece serves on the Denver Digital Equity Coalition, the state’s Subcommittee on Digital Literacy and Inclusion, and the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, setting best practices and creating models to improve digital access in all communities.