Promoting public literacy in economically challenging times: a NetIKX seminar held at the British Dental Association and online, 23 May 2024


A seminar on public literacy and digital literacy in the UK and how public libraries can tackle digital inclusion.

After a long absence, NetIKX members and guests finally met to enjoy four stimulating presentations on ‘Promoting public literacy in economically challenging times’. All the speakers addressed the topic from their own lived experience and unique perspective, challenging us to broaden our preconceived notions of what constitutes ‘literacy’. 

photo of woman using computer

Digital literacy: opportunities and challenges for public libraries

First up was Ed Jewell, President-Elect of Libraries Connected, a charity which supports, promotes and represents all public library services. Jersey Library, where Ed is Chief Librarian, has over 44,000 active members and provides a range of services, including assistance with digital skills, community events and a summer reading challenge in which over 2,200 children participated last year. 

Jersey is a small, geographically isolated community where the cost of living is high and around 20% of the population has English as a second language (there’s a large Portuguese community, within which the older and younger generations have different information needs). Ageing buildings and limited access to professionals with relevant skills add to the challenges faced by the library service. 

Digital literacy doesn’t exist in a vacuum: it’s part of all other literacies” – Ed Jewell

Ed pointed out that public literacy, including digital literacy, does not exist in a vacuum: we first have to understand what digital exclusion means. The House of Lords Communication and Digital Committee report on this topic found that digital exclusion was a “serious problem”, with 1.7 million households having no broadband or mobile internet at home, and 2.4 million people unable to complete a single basic task online. The report concluded that the government should prioritise libraries and other local amenities to help people get online.

To research the role of libraries in tackling digital inclusion, Libraries Connected collaborated with the Good Things Foundation to produce a set of key findings and recommendations entitled Digital Inclusion in Libraries. They found that although over 80% of services were at least ‘partly confident’ of meeting needs, half of library services did not yet have a digital inclusion strategy. The report also acknowledged that not everyone feels comfortable using a library and that some needs may be hidden. Since many services have limited resources to offer all the support they would like to, collaboration is key. Partnerships with the voluntary and community sectors are vital in reaching communities – and local authorities must support libraries with information as well as funding.

Libraries, digital inclusion and positive social change

This theme was continued by the second presenter, Sarah Mears (Programme Manager for Libraries Connected), who spoke on “Public libraries as a vehicle for positive social change in which digital literacy is a key factor”. Sarah pointed out that literacy has been at the heart of public libraries ever since the 1850 Public Libraries Act. However, the definition of literacy is changing, with UNESCO now acknowledging that literacy is “part of a larger set of skills which include digital skills, media literacy, education for sustainable development and global citizenship as well as job-specific skills”. 

The value of public libraries was brought home during the COVID-19 pandemic, when  library workers were confirmed to be “key/critical workers” providing essential services to the public during the restrictions imposed by lockdown. During this time, access to digital services became vital, but as the need for accurate, trustworthy information grew, so did the online dissemination of conspiracy theories and “fake news”. As trusted institutions, public libraries now had an important role in providing access to independent fact-checking resources, such as Full Fact, to counter misinformation and encourage critical thinking. 

“If we engage better with each other, we engage better with technology” – Sarah Mears

An additional service offered by public libraries both during lockdown and afterwards was the creation of “health ambassadors”, promoting health literacy through sharing partner information, relevant health-related material and public health messaging. Other initiatives in which public libraries are active include promotion of “climate literacy” – education on environmental sustainability – and the Libraries of Sanctuary project. These and other vital community projects support Sarah’s conclusion that “public libraries are at the heart of public literacy”.

HMRC Digital Ambassadors: bridging the digital divide in public literacy

NetIKX committee member Emma Bahar then spoke on the Digital Ambassador Scheme in HMRC. According to the National Literacy Trust, 16.4% of adults in the UK have “very poor” literacy skills – but as we have seen, there are several types of literacy. The key to all types of literacy is the ability to understand, engage with and critically evaluate information. Emma emphasised that digital literacy is not just about internet access: it’s also about having the skills to differentiate between fake and real news, to express your opinion and understand others’ opinions, and to keep yourself safe from manipulative advertising, fraud or malicious social media posts.

There’s clearly a digital divide in the UK, as evidenced by the latest Digital Nation infographic from the Good Things Foundation. Not only do 8.5 million people lack basic digital skills, but many have no access or limited access to the internet, with nearly 1 in 5 only going online via a mobile phone. This can make it more difficult to fill in forms, apply for jobs or access health services. Older people, disabled people and those on low incomes are particularly likely to be digitally disadvantaged: the digital divide reinforces other social inequalities.

“We cannot simply think of digital literacy as the ability to go online and access information” – Emma Bahar

Part of HMRC’s aim to become “a trusted and modern tax and customs department” is its three-pronged approach to improve digital literacy for its staff, for businesses and for the public. This includes outreach work, with digital ambassadors being encouraged to help a friend or family member with tasks such as online banking, and the introduction of an HMRC app to help people access information quickly and easily on their phones.

Emma also noted that the digital ambassador scheme had been a rewarding experience, giving her increased confidence and enabling her to build a rapport with colleagues. There are now over 1,100 volunteers from different locations and business areas within HMRC, and the network has become a supportive community where people feel their development needs are addressed.

Levelling up the UK: what about public literacy?

Wrapping up the event, fellow committee member Rob Rosset addressed the topic of “Levelling Up the United Kingdom” – the title of a 2022 government white paper. The Levelling Up agenda aims to reduce the imbalances between areas and social groups across the UK. It’s a major government project which is intended to run until 2030: however, with a general election looming, it is uncertain what the future holds.

Digital inclusion is central to the project, with terms such as “digital connectivity” and “digital hub” appearing frequently. The government is working with a variety of partners including local government, charities, businesses and areas specifically selected for investment. Although still in its early stages, the Levelling Up agenda has attracted both praise and criticism: whereas there are definite signs of regeneration in some deprived areas of the country, cuts in local government funding may have cancelled out the benefits of the initiative. 

The workshop concluded with a round of questions and was followed by a social event for those attending in person. Many thanks to all the speakers, attendees and everyone who contributed to this informative and thought-provoking session.

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