Challenging the Digital Divide Among Librarians


By: Alejandra Méndez, Doctoral Student, the University of Puerto Rico

Since the implementation of the PROMESA Act in 2016 (PROMESA Act, 2016), Puerto Rico’s educational institutions have undertaken massive budget cuts. These cuts, along with the devastating effects of hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, and the earthquakes that have impacted the Southern municipalities of the island since December 2019, have led to the additional closure of public schools (Lebrón & Bonilla, 2020). In the 2018-2019 fiscal year, the then-appointed Secretary of Education, Dr. Julia Kelleher, closed hundreds of schools. At the beginning of the 2018-2019 school year, there were only 855 schools left (Balingit, 2020). In recent months, this number has decreased due to damages to the school’s infrastructures as a result of the ongoing earthquakes. Along with the great number of school closures, the island’s students and their legal guardians face another challenge: meeting the demands of remote education during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2013 the Department of Education had 1,460 schools with wireless internet connection; however, this number decreased during both hurricanes Irma and María which left many stuck on the shallow end of the digital divide.

Municipalities under disaster declaration

Municipalities under disaster declaration (Image courtesy of FEMA Puerto Rico)

The challenges faced by Puerto Rican librarians have always been great. The island does not have a reliable system of public libraries. Various school libraries do not have a certified librarian or the funding to update their collections (Berrios Llorens, 2019). Academic libraries also face great challenges such as lay-offs, budget cuts, or partial or full closing of their units due to poor infrastructure. Although some libraries were able to recover partially, earthquakes and COVID-19 have left them in a vulnerable position. Some of the librarians on the island have been able to adapt to a remote working routine. But, this has been an uphill task. Like many island residents, school and academic librarians are dependent on their unit’s technological and wireless infrastructure. Some library workers and island residents do not have access to computers or wireless internet connection. How does a librarian serve a patron through remote access? Some have resorted to borrowing friends’ or their relatives’ computers; thus, depriving their relatives of their device in order to work. Others use tablets to meet the growing demands of the faculty and students. Cellphones have been used as hotspots.

Protest sign in front of Gerardo Sellés Solá Library, College of Education at University University of Puerto Rico during the 2018-2019 academic semester

Protest sign in front of Gerardo Sellés Solá Library, College of Education at University University of Puerto Rico during the 2018-2019 academic semester. The sign reads: “Select the best answer: Your health or your education? a) Health b) Education c) All of the above”

How does a librarian meet the challenges brought by the digital divide and enhanced by the various crises since 2016? In the Spring semester, most librarians and educators were only able to provide face-to-face services and instruction for a month. The earthquakes that struck the island forced schools to delay their opening after the Winter break. When schools finally opened, COVID-19 was looming. A school librarian from the Central Mountain Range comments that the most ardent challenge has been being able to reach out to teachers, due to the diverse communication platforms each has selected to impart their courses. The lack of face-to-face lecture time that librarians, teachers, and students had expected ruined annual plans. Many are already trying to get around budget cuts, recovery from hurricanes Irma and María, and the recent earthquakes. Librarians have been able to reach some of the students, but this outreach to the school community was limited due to issues with online accessibility. The use of SMS messaging and mobile phone technology has been one of the main sources to provide library services and to assist teachers. As previously stated, academic librarians are not exempt from the hurdles that distance education poses on an island with limited wireless internet access. Librarians and educators across the island have shared a similar phenomenological experience like their students: trying to thrive while being stuck on the shallow end of the digital divide.


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Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, Pub. L. No. 114-187, 130 Stat. 549 (2016).

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