Libraries Get Help to Improve Digital Literacy

West Virginia state officials worked to put together a guidebook to help state groups plan their digital literacy projects.

by Cody Neff, McClatchy News Service / January 2, 2014

With the number of smartphones you see everywhere, you'd think it would be safe to assume that everyone is good with computers. But state library officials say there's more to using technology than tweeting and playing Candy Crush.

West Virginia state officials worked to put together the State Library Guidebook: Support for Literacy in Public Libraries, which will help state groups plan their digital literacy projects.

The American Library Association defines digital literacy as "the ability to find, understand, evaluate, create and communicate digital information."

According to the Guidebook, eight out of 10 Fortune 500 companies take only online job applications and using the Internet to look for a job cuts the average unemployment time by 25 percent. It also says 77 percent of jobs will use tech skills by the end of the decade.

One of the library directors who helped put the study together was Raleigh County's own Amy Lilly.

"There's a misconception about what the need is with digital literacy," Lilly said. "We assume because a lot of people have smartphones or know how to go on Facebook that they know how to operate a computer. What we said during the survey is that yes, they can use social media, but we have a need with our patrons to know how to fill out job applications online.

"Maybe that coal miner hasn't had to apply online before and always did it with pens and paper. Here they've lost their job and haven't been job hunting in 10 to 15 years and now it has changed. Now you can't get a job without filling out an application online.

"We said these are people who need basic skills like setting up an e-mail address," Lilly added. "They need to know how to fill out a job application or government forms online or how to locate government resources online. What we said was that is where the focus needs to be. They don't need to know how to get on Facebook. They know how to do that."

To help fix problems like this, Lilly said Raleigh County Public Libraries are using several programs.

"One of the things we've been doing is teaching computer classes," she said. "We also offer one-on-one class work. If you come in and say 'I need help. I've never used a computer and I need to fill out a job application,' then you can actually book a librarian and they'll sit down with you and do one-on-one.

"We've also done classes where we teach basic computer skills. We've been teaching people how to use the genealogy resources that are online, such as"

Lilly said they're also working with local schools to make sure students understand how to use the technology around them.

"We've been doing a new initiative with Beckley-Stratton Middle School with their after-school program," she said. "We go out there every three weeks and take books for the kids. They're an after-school program and we've also been teaching them how to check out e-books. All of the children in Raleigh County have the iPads.

"One of the things we said is that it's great, but we want to make sure that they can check out books and read books on those iPads. We've been working and doing this pilot program and teaching kids how to check out books from the public library onto their iPad at school."

Every program the library offers is free, Lilly said.

"Any time someone calls and says they've never used a computer or set up an e-mail, we actually help them set up their e-mail," she said. "We've also helped people fill out information for the Affordable Care Act. We also have a volunteer that comes in several times a month and will actually sit down and work one-on-one with people to fill out paperwork for that. They're usually here on Mondays.

"There are no computer courses for January yet, but that's just because we typically have very poor turnout because of the weather. We usually kick everything back off in early March. The on-demand help is always there though. People can come in and say, 'I need an hour,' and we have staff who can help them. People can set up appointments for the one-on-one help with the computers every Thursday."

The computers at each of Raleigh County's libraries stays pretty busy, Lilly said.

"Our computer lab has 21 computers and it's usually full," she said. "We're open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, so we have about 900 people who come through the door every day. That's just at this branch.

"My Shady Spring branch has five public computers and my Sophia branch has four. They're generally full, too. We actually have a computer program that actually times computers up here. They're given an hour at a time because there's such a wait to get on the computers."

To keep up with the digital literacy trends of the area, Lilly said they're just going to keep doing what works.

"Most of it is just to continue to offer the ongoing classes," she said. "We're always investigating new technology. We base it on what the patrons have been asking for.

"Right now, some libraries in other big cities have been checking out iPads, laptops and other things like that. We're not to that point yet, but I can see that as being the future."

It was groups like those in Raleigh County that helped put together the Guidebook that would help people all over the state.

"With the Internet, online tools and e-books the new normal, digital literacy is here to stay," West Virginia Library Commission's Secretary Karen Goff said in a press release. "Digital literacy will continue to evolve as a necessary skill set for individuals, organizations and communities to have in order to participate in our ever more connected society. West Virginia's libraries will be there to offer assistance, resources and guidance."

(c)2013 The Register-Herald (Beckley, W.Va.)