Photo: Sarasota County Youth Services Librarian

Sarasota County Libraries Look to the Internet to Boost Digital Literacy

Posted on September 21, 2020 by Emily Wunderlich, Herald-Tribune Media Group
Editor's Note: This story comes from Aspirations Journalism, an initiative of The Patterson Foundation and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune to inform, inspire and engage the community to take action on issues related to digital access.

As a digital services librarian for Sarasota County, Heather Gorman was used to seeing 30 people at a time who wanted to learn about using their iPhone, iPad, or other Apple devices.

Public libraries, she said, have always been an "institutional mainstay" where people could go for answers – whether for research, entertainment, or simply learning a new skill.

But all of that changed in March when libraries closed because of the coronavirus pandemic. The closures challenged the county library system to rethink the way it continued to offer public services.

"Since the closure, we've really had to pivot the way we're reaching our patrons through programming," she said. "We aren't able to physically meet them at the library due to social distancing, but we wanted to meet them online."

Most of the county's branch libraries reopened with modified hours on June 15. Patrons are being encouraged to use curbside services, and in-person events are still on hold indefinitely.

While computers remain available for public use, they are fewer and farther between than before – literally – to comply with social distancing guidelines.

That's why the county library system has spent months working to push more of its resources to an online format. The next challenge, Gorman said, is to get the word out and help people take advantage of it.

"Our website is, by its nature, digital literacy," she said. "We're hoping people go there with questions or desires to further their education – or just entertain themselves."

Before, the libraries hosted an array of in-person events aimed at improving digital literacy.

The "Ask a Teenager" program, for example, would set up shop every Saturday at the Osprey Library at Historic Spanish Point, where teen volunteers were ready to assist patrons with their technology questions.

Now, programs like that have moved online, and patrons can access them in various ways – both in real-time and on-demand.

Library staff are available for live chat through the website's "Ask Us" platform, between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. They also can be reached by text, email, or phone call.

The libraries also host "Tech Help via Zoom," a live event from 1 to 5 p.m. every Tuesday, where patrons can book a one-on-one video conference with a library staff member to talk about devices, library services, and other general questions.

"Cyber-Seniors" is an on-demand video series to teach older generations how to participate in an increasingly digital society. Topics range from online banking, video calling, and web browsing to various social media platforms, media fact-checking, and changing your device's settings.

And "Grow with Google" is another live event hosted throughout the month that focuses on digital topics related to entrepreneurship.

Library staff record and edit much of the on-demand virtual programming themselves. Gorman says the on-demand approach has helped increase accessibility by allowing patrons to pause, rewind, and restart the videos at any time – and it won't be going away once things return to "normal."

The Library Foundation for Sarasota County helped procure microphones and tripod stands so library staff could set themselves up to record the programs. The additions have helped improve audio quality, making it easier to caption videos accurately for accessibility.

Gorman said it could be especially difficult for patrons seeking help with job applications, unemployment, and other financial assistance without the ability to receive hands-on instruction.

"The websites are still a challenge, and it's even more of a challenge when we have to limit the use of our computers," she said.

Studies by the Pew Research Center have found that Americans' knowledge of digital topics varies greatly by education level and age, and Americans with higher levels of education are more likely to answer digital knowledge questions correctly.

"Patrons who are willing to learn are allowing themselves to remain autonomous," Gorman said. "It gives them a sense of confidence when it comes to using a computer."

"So much of our time is spent on a computer in the digital realm," she continued. "To be able to navigate that for themselves will be a strength for them."

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