How the Petworth Library is helping to close the digital divide

Petworth LIbrary

By Lois Cooper

Technology has become a staple in our lives and homes, with computers, mobile phones, smart watches, wifi and internet access the new norm. Yet there are homes in Petworth with no computers or Internet access. Getting online isn't a convenience, it's a difficulty.

This inconvenience places a burden on families and individuals that need to connect to information but are impeded by many factors. Not having internet access at home affects computer literacy skills, and makes it difficult to locate resources, apply for jobs, complete employment verifications, finish academic assignments and communicate with friends and family. In today's world, internet access should be a basic right.

The "digital divide" facing residents is defined by a Stanford University study as "the growing gap between the underprivileged members of society, especially the poor, rural, elderly, and handicapped portion of the population who do not have access to computers or the Internet.”

One local resource to help close some of that digital divide is our Petworth Library and its publicly accessible offering computer labs. The labs are available to the public during library business hours (they vary, check with the library).

On my trip to the library at 6:30pm on a Thursday evening there were 19 people seated in front of computers in the first floor lab. I walked around talking to people on the computers to understand why they were there. People told me they use the library’s computers because they're the only access they have to the internet or a computer.

Rita stops by the library about once a week. She used to live in the neighborhood and still comes by “just to have something to do” and also because home internet is “too expensive.”

Fanny lives in the neighborhood and goes to Trinity University, and said she uses the library’s lab for Facebook, schoolwork, and to watch movies since she does not have internet access at home.

John, who is retired, comes to library because “it’s quiet, convenient, and he can’t afford access at home.”

Jordon Johnson, the Petworth Library information clerk, explained that Petworth has 38 computers and two express terminals for 15-minute use. There are 24 computers available for adults/general public, six computers designated for teens 13-19 years old, and eight computers for children under 12 years of age. The lab specifically designated for children is located on a separate floor and is monitored.

Additional reasons people use library computers are for support services like printing documents if they don’t have a printer at home. There is also the Online Catalog computer to search for resources that are not on the shelves at Petworth, but maybe be at other local libraries. 

I met James who also used to live in the neighborhood. James said he was at the library to search for available jobs. He said he doesn’t have a computer at home and internet access is “too expensive for him right now.”

Rodney told me he was using the computer lab for some research, as his computer was down right now. He remarked that the library computers are quicker and with better speed.

An article on Mashable provides additional information about the digital divide facing residents of all cities: 

  • Individual searching for free Internet often winds up at libraries. New York City libraries house over 4,000 publicly available computers and 1,300 laptops available for rent.
  • Susan Crawford, telecommunications policy expert and former White House, official insists “Having fast, reliable Internet access is a basic human right."
  • Susan concludes "It’s not the people’s fault. It’s the marketplace’s fault."
  • It is estimated that standard connection to American homes cost about $30 or $40 a month and many people can’t afford that.”
  • Susan Crawford believes “that, in order to get America online, the government must treat internet access like the early-twentieth century government treated telephone service.”

With the assistance of local library services like the Petworth Computer Lab, the community can be assured that economics and social barriers do not determine who can and cannot access information.

DC also offers low-cost computers and internet access through the Connect.DC program. More information on the program is available on their website.

This is the first article by new Petworth News contributing writer Lois Cooper. Lois is a native Washingtonian and the founder and Director of the District of Columbia African American Legacy Foundation (DCAALF), a grassroots organization that helps underserved populations.

Learn more about Lois and the new contributing writers on the About Petworth News page.