Everyone should have access to digital information, session urges

Posted Oct. 18, 2011, at 9:33 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 18, 2011, at 10:06 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — The concept of community is changing.

Before the Internet, community participation meant showing up at a meeting to voice your opinion. Applying for a job meant going to a store and sitting down with pen and paper. Promoting an event meant placing an ad in the local newspaper.

Within a whirlwind of change, libraries and civic groups are trying to figure out how to avoid leaving people behind.

Municipal officials, librarians, business leaders, educators and emergency response personnel from across the state and nation met at the Hilton Garden Inn in Bangor on Tuesday night as part of a two-day conference to discuss ways to assure that communities include everyone in the boom of digital information.

The events were organized by the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences, assisted by the University of Washington Information School and the International City/County Management Association.

“Change is just happening so rapidly,” said Barbara McDade, director of the Bangor Public Library. The push could leave Maine’s older or geographically isolated populations in the dust if libraries don’t step in to make technology and assistance accessible, she said.

The Pine Tree State has barriers that make access difficult: Its people are spread in small bands over a very large swath of land — 60 percent of Mainers live in rural areas. Also, the state has the second-largest percentage of residents over the age of 65, many of whom are wary of digital technology, McDade said.

Another obstacle is fears about security over the Web, said moderator Samantha Becker of the University of Washington, but those fears can be abated by education on how to keep your identity safe.

The conference also made stops in Los Angeles and Oklahoma City. Maine was picked as the third location because of its largely rural population and staunch efforts to boost broadband Internet service.

Maine was the first state to mandate, in 1996, that all schools and libraries be connected to the Internet, said Maine State Librarian Linda Lord.

That gave students access to databases stockpiled with research. The unemployed could fill out more job applications, more and more of which only can be found online. But this connectivity means little if residents in those communities don’t have access to educational tools to help them learn how to use the technology, speakers at the conference stressed.

Conference attendees broke into smaller groups Tuesday evening to discuss how municipalities and groups might encourage digital inclusiveness in their communities. Officials will try to hash out the next steps in boosting digital access at Wednesday’s session.

Computers, smartphones and other technologies put a world of information at individuals’ fingertips, said Ron Carlee of the International City/County Management Association, and municipal governments and companies should try to ensure that Internet access is widespread and affordable.

“Maybe technology is just helping us create community in a different way,” Carlee said.

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