Coronavirus, the Digital Divide, and Public Libraries

Social distancing has moved so much of our work, learning, and social interaction online, but we’re leaving too many people behind. Only about ¾ of Syracuse households have internet access. That leaves 13,000 families where the parents simply cannot telecommute and the kids simply cannot participate in a virtual classroom.

In more normal times, these families use free wifi or public PCs when they need to get online. They go to school, to the library. That’s why libraries have left the wifi on even though they’ve locked their doors—so that people who need the internet can sit in the parking lot, log on, and check their email, submit an assignment, join a video meeting, or whatever else it is that they need to do online in these crazy times.

But that’s clearly not enough. For one thing, too many of the families that need public internet can’t very well drive to the library because they don’t own a car. At the same time, only essential workers are supposed to be on the buses, and there aren’t enough branch libraries to be within walking distance of all the neighborhoods.

Internet access (in green) and car access (in yellow) in Syracuse. The black lines show streets within 1/2 mile of a library

So how are all of those people without internet and without reliable access to public wifi supposed to work from home or become distance learners? For that matter, how are they supposed to file for unemployment or look for jobs or see the faces of loved ones living away from here?

And while coronavirus has highlighted the digital divide, it’s a problem that’s been around for years, and it will still be a problem even after the world goes back to ‘normal.’ In a few months time (god willing), the same people who can’t telecommute are going to have to go to the library to file for unemployment, to apply for new jobs, to fill out the census.

So it’s extremely distressing that Onondaga County just laid off a slew of library workers. Will they have jobs when all of this is over? Will the branches be fully staffed when they reopen? Anybody who’s spent any time in a public library can tell you that the staff is just as necessary as the computers for ensuring equal access to the internet. 

The coronavirus is widening the fault lines in the community. Who gets laid off versus who can work from home—who can enroll their children in a private online learning program versus who has to home school without any resources at all. These  lines are expressions of the digital divide. If Syracuse is going to come out of this crisis even more united and less unequal, it’s going to have to bridge that divide. Instead of laying off library staff, the County has to open new branches in more neighborhoods. That’s what it will take to make the City stronger than it was before.