Yesterday the Office of National Statistics released its latest Internet access – households and individuals report. Once again it demonstrated something that is often overlooked, there is a sizeable proportion of the population that do not have an internet connection. According to the statistics, although the percentage of households with an internet connection has grown to 77% (up 4% on last year), there are still an amazing 5.7 million households in the UK without internet access. Other top line statistics from the report:
- 45 per cent of Internet users used a mobile phone to connect to the Internet
- 6 million people accessed the Internet over their mobile phone for the first time in the previous 12 months
- The use of wireless hotspots almost doubled in the last 12 months to 4.9 million users
- 21 per cent of Internet users did not believe their skills were sufficient to protect their personal data
- 77 per cent of households had Internet access
- 50% of those without internet say they do not need it
- 40% say that the equipment is too expensive or they do not believe they have the skills required
…many children are being left behind
The last three points are particularly crucial. Households without internet would mean, in many cases, families without internet connections. This is particularly concerning as it has been demonstrated that children’s performance at school can be affected by their inability to make use of an internet connection. Whilst the report doesn’t provide statistics on family households without internet access, it is not beyond reason to conclude that there are a great many families included within that 5.7 million households figure. And, consequently, a great many children who are potentially being left behind by their ‘connected’ peers. The consequences of this disparity are fairly clear.
The final two points are also concerning and provide a stark reminder of what damage would be done by large-scale library closures. Libraries can play a massive role in addressing these issues. Trained, professional library staff can help to support inexperienced users to find their way around the internet and gain the confidence to take full advantage of what it offers. It has been demonstrated in repeated studies that people using the internet are economically better off (££) and, at a time of such economic difficulty, this is more important now than ever.
…public libraries are crucial to reducing digital inequality
Furthermore, the provision of free internet access in public libraries is absolutely crucial to reducing digital inequality and ensuring that a sizeable proportion of the population are not left behind. Close public libraries and remove the only point of free internet access and you create a society of digitally excluded, those left to flounder as they do not have the finances or skills to keep up with the digitally advanced. It is not enough to simply provide these people with computers and hope that will resolve the inequality. Who will provide the support and the training? Public libraries are still the best way to ensure that the digital revolution does not further isolate the disadvantaged from society and ensure that no-one is left behind.
One further point on this issue that perhaps ought to be made, in terms of libraries/librarians themselves rather than the people who use them. It is worth noting that neither the Guardian or the BBC made any reference to public libraries offering free internet access, nor did they mention the impact library closures could have on those that are digitally excluded. You may argue that the point isn’t directly relevant to those particular articles. Maybe not. However, it is worth remembering that although there have been plenty of positive shifts in the coverage of libraries in the past year, commentators still do not see libraries as a solution to modern-day problems. For library advocacy to have any real success, this has to change. Because if people of influence cannot see the role libraries can and should play in addressing contemporary concerns, there is little hope for the future of the library service and the profession.