This edition of Keeping Up With… was written by Michelle Frisque and Kara Malenfant.
Michelle Frisque is Broadband Advisor to the American Library Association, firstname.lastname@example.org, and Kara Malenfant is the Senior Strategist for Special Initiatives at the Association of College and Research Libraries, email@example.com.
Building on pandemic relief and recovery programs, the federal government is making historic investments through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) in advancing digital equity, literacy, and inclusion for all. The IIJA highlights the important role that community anchor institutions, like libraries, play in creating a digitally equitable future for all. Libraries of all types – including community college, college, and university libraries – will be eligible for funding. The IIJA has three goals:
- Build infrastructure that provides reliable high-speed Internet access to all Americans for today and tomorrow.
- Make high-speed internet affordable and reliable so everyone can participate.
- Providing the resources needed to equitably expand the adoption and use of the Internet so everyone can experience the benefits.
Of particular interest to community college, college, and university libraries, is the Digital Equity Act (DEA) which provides $2.75 billion over five years to promote digital equity, literacy, and inclusion initiatives at the local, state, and national levels. The DEA provides an opportunity to leverage federal funds to expand the work academic libraries are already doing to advance digital equity for their communities including:
- Providing access to broadband and devices within the library and beyond.
- Building information and digital literacy skills.
- Supporting workforce development and entrepreneurship.
DEA programs are administered by the United States Department of Commerce National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and provide an unprecedented level of funding to advance digital equity. There is unlikely to be another opportunity like this in our lifetime to further the good work libraries of all types are already doing.
DEA promotes digital inclusion and spurs greater adoption of broadband among populations and communities that have been disproportionally impacted by digital inequity. These covered populations could be students and community members your institution and library already serve. These populations include:
- Households with income ≤ 150% poverty level.
- Individuals with language barriers (e.g., English language learners, low literacy).
- Members of a racial or ethnic minority group.
- Individuals with disabilities.
- Primarily reside in a rural area.
- Incarcerated individuals (other than individuals who are incarcerated in a Federal correctional facility) .
- Age 60 and above.
Digital Equity Act: Three Funding Stages
DEA funding will be distributed in three sequential stages:
Step 1. $60 million for State Digital Equity Planning Grants. States and territories have one year to develop their digital equity plans to promote digital equity, support digital inclusion activities, and build capacity for broadband adoption for their residents.
Each state must engage community partners during this planning process, including libraries, to achieve its digital equity goals. Most states received their planning grants in the fall of 2022 and are drafting their plans now, and you can influence their development.
Step 2: $1.44 billion for the State Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program. Once their digital equity plans are approved by the NTIA, states and territories will receive funding based on a formula to implement their plan over the next five years.
Step 3: $1.25 billion Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program. This program is for eligible entities, including community college, college, and university libraries, to promote digital inclusion and spur greater broadband adoption among covered populations. This will be a competitive grant program administered at the federal level annually for four years.
This funding could support work that academic libraries are already doing, like training that covers basic and advanced digital skills – including information literacy; workforce development programs (e.g., developing student workers as peer research coaches, offering residencies in digital scholarship, supporting workforce development in the broader community); distributing free or low-cost equipment (e.g. Wi-Fi or laptop lending); and constructing, upgrading, or expanding public access computing centers.
States have designated an entity (often, but not always, the state’s broadband office) to receive the funds and develop its digital equity plan. Ask your state librarian or state library association how your state is developing its digital equity plan, who is responsible, and how you can get involved.
Lead at your institution by discussing this opportunity with campus partners who work with students from covered populations like TRIO, student services, tutoring, writing center, and disability services. Gather their perspectives on the needs and opportunities of underserved students. Find out what kind of workforce development your career services (and other offices) offer that helps people from covered populations find jobs or change careers. Is there an entrepreneurship center that helps community members start a new business? Represent your institution, students, and community to state planners.
Showcase Your Work
Tell state planners how your library already advances digital equity (or could, if you adapted programs to serve covered populations). Connect the dots for them. If your library lends laptops or Wi-Fi hotspots – that improves digital equity. If you are open to the public and offer a learning commons, computing equipment, or digital innovation lab – that equipment, software, and technical support advance digital equity.
Opportunities abound for libraries in digital skills training and workforce development. Tell state planners how your information literacy instruction, citation management workshops, technology training, and research consultations are digital skills training. Explain that, with funds, libraries are well positioned to scale up workforce development through student employment, internships, practicums, fellowships, and residencies for those from covered populations. Tell a convincing story about how the experiential learning you offer imparts the digital competencies that help students launch their careers. Describe how, if you had funds through your state, you could reach more people from covered populations.
Share examples like these with state planners and highlight your expertise. They may not realize that your work could be modified or expanded to support the digital equity goals of your state. They likely do not know that academic librarians are engaged in digital equity work and should be included in the planning phase.
In addition to showcasing your work and advocating with state planners, we encourage you to begin planning how you might want to leverage funds from the State Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program and/or the Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program so you are ready when the grant application process begins!
Beyond DEA, other federal funding opportunities support and advance digital equity. For example, the Broadband, Equity, Access, and Deployment Grant (BEAD) program includes $42.5 billion to expand high-speed broadband access infrastructure, deployment, and adoption. Like the DEA, states will first receive funds to develop their 5-year action plan and build capacity to support their efforts.
While BEAD aims to build infrastructure that provides reliable high-speed, affordable Internet access, there is also a goal of ensuring the community has the skills and understands the benefits of using it. This planning stage, too, strongly encourages collaboration with community organizations, like libraries. So, as you advocate for inclusion in the DEA plan, know that there is also a digital equity component to BEAD.
Amplify your assets and connect your work with other community and campus partners to promote the role your library can play in advancing your state's digital equity goals. Learn more from the additional resources, below.
ALA Digital Equity Resources for Libraries Toolkit: This resource includes the ALA report Leverage Libraries to Achieve Historic Progress Towards Digital Equity for All and links to policy information, best practices, funding opportunities, and a range of resources from libraries and partner organizations to support libraries’ digital equity work.
Coalition for Networked Information (CNI) Project Briefing: Leverage Libraries to Achieve Historic Progress Toward Digital Equity for All: This policy update for community college, college, and university libraries presents the new federal funding opportunities available to achieve their digital equity, literacy, and inclusion goals. It includes information on how to position your library’s digital equity assets and needs to policymakers, institutional leaders, and community partners to increase library visibility and secure resources to support your library’s and community’s digital inclusion goals in the years to come.
Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology (OET) Capitalizing on the Moment: States Collaborate with Education Leaders on Digital Equity Plans: This article highlights how a few states are collaborating with education leaders as co-designers of digital equity plans, gathering input from diverse populations by tapping into education networks, and partnering with agencies serving community anchor institutions. The article also includes a link to OET’s 2022 report, Advancing Digital Equity for All.
State Broadband Offices: Includes information about how each state and territory is coordinating their broadband programs.