The world embraces technology as the magical tool that can make all fields and processes more efficient. Yet technology also has the potential to alienate those that can benefit from it the most. In a talk at PyOhio – find it here bit.ly/2JRwKcw – I presented a section called the ‘Diversity Shortcut’, to discuss how the tech world can work on its diversity problem. Spoiler alert: my proposed solution is public libraries. While there are no real short cuts to diversity and inclusion, a more direct route to reaching diverse people can be found at the public library.
Imagine a place that you can go to learn new things, or find more information on something you heard about or saw somewhere. Most people might say that place is Google or YouTube. Now imagine you don’t have a computer and/or access to the internet. Imagine that you need to fill out an application for government services, or you need to fill out an application for a job, or you or your child need to submit homework online. Without that access to a computer and the internet that we can take for granted, the answer to the question ‘where do you go to?’ has to change. For many people the answer is the library.
The library has become the primary point of access for some people who cannot afford a computer and/or internet service. Without online access, we find that a number of demographics face added hardship: for students to access homework assignments on the internet, people of all ages looking for employment who are sent to the internet, people who need assistance from governmental agencies, and seniors looking to access information about their health care and or retirement. The library provides access for these people to essential activities that promote their personal advancement as well as leisure-time activities.
In recent years there have been discussions about whether the library is still necessary and could it be replaced by some combination of Amazon and Starbucks, as suggested in a since deleted Forbes article. These options will allow you to access the internet and get books, but libraries are more than the internet and books. Access is not the only barrier to people’s success. Once you have access, there is also the problem of how to use these tools and resources. The thing that makes a public library superior to an afternoon at Starbucks is that you have staff and additional resources to support you as you gather information and navigate new tools. Your barista probably won’t help you format your paper.
Public libraries have a very unique position in this conversation about diversity. We provide access to resources and we also provide training to navigate those resources. As such, we help better prepare people to use those resources independently in the future. In addition, working and spending time in public libraries fosters strong communities. More than that, libraries as public spaces offer people a chance to connect one on one and get hands-on experience with resources that range from reading books to growing plants, cooking food, and even programming.
‘Parkman Coders Program’ at the Detroit Public Library here in the US is one small instance of how libraries engage diverse populations. We give them access to resources, the skills to navigate those resources, as well as real-world interactions.
Parkman Coders was created out of concern for our youth and how they interact with technology, the community, and the world at large. The goal of this programme is to present youth in the city of Detroit with resources to study computer science – because we at the library recognise that now and in the future, computers will be an essential part of how they interact with the world. By giving these kids exposure to this subject matter, we are empowering them to go out into the world as creators, not just as consumers.
Parkman Coders focuses on learning about computer science through physical computing and integration with other fields. Raspberry Pi computers and micro:bits have been an integral part of this learning experience for our kids. It’s important that our youth get to be hands on with their projects, and the price point of the technology makes it possible for us to give the students who complete the projects their Raspberry Pis or micro:bits so they can continue their exploration. It’s also important that we let the kids have a say in the projects so they can learn that technology and computers are tools that can be used to support their primary interest, whether that’s art, music, gaming, or gardening.
It’s exciting to me to see the effect that library programmes have on our patrons. Children who started participating in Parkman Coders three years ago continue to come along, and a few have gone on to be summer interns who assist with other Parkman Coders. One of my young coders is waiting to be a summer intern and eventually wants to be a librarian. Two others are working on college admissions, and they want to be engineers. These are some of the same kids who, when asked what they wanted to be when they grew up three years ago, stated ‘someone who makes a lot of money’.
While we’re now more likely to search for information on digital platforms than in books, the library is and always has been a repository for information . A repository boasting staff trained to help find and navigate information. While the formats may change, the mission is the same. The library is a place where you can go not only when you need resources, but also when you need the support to use them.
At the Detroit Public Library, Parkman Coders is one way in which we try to present diverse populations with access to basic resources. That, and the opportunities to advance themselves and their communities.