Book Review: Without a Net: Librarians Bridging the Digital Divide

Without a Net: Librarians Bridging the Digital Divide. Jessamyn C. West, Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited, 2012.

Review by: Trevar Riley-Reid

Look around you and you will see people transfixed and sometimes consumed by technology. They might be texting, listening to music on an iPod, or working on a tablet. It is an incontrovertible fact that technology has changed our lives in so many ways, both positive and negative. Yet, as ubiquitous as technology is, there is a growing digital divide, which Jessamyn West explores in her book, Without a Net: Librarians Bridging the Digital Divide. West hopes that after reading her book, readers will not only want to do something about the digital divide, using her ideas, but also be better equipped to do so.

Without a Net is geared to public librarians who, as West contends, are in a unique position to reach most of the U.S. population. One point she makes is that in trying to bridge the gap, the focus needs to be on learning and not necessarily on mastery. West begins with a look at the digital divide and the forces at work that prevent people from interacting with certain levels of technology. It's more than just lack of access to computers. The digital divide encompasses those who lack basic technology skills and who don't have a means to learn those skills - very important in a society that requires people be able to interact with web pages and send and receive email. As West indicates, there are patrons who don't have the skills to file for unemployment or conduct other government business online. Even those who are "tech savvy" might not have newer skills. Technology is always evolving to the point where many of us succumb to what West terms "techno stress."

The steady pacing of this book is accented with well-placed illustrations and examples to provide readers with concrete tools and strategies to hit the ground running. The book consists of 11 chapters with an introduction to define various factors that contribute to the digital divide, then moves on to examine the people in the library (those on both sides of the desk). West offers data to show who is affected and the levels of digital disconnect. She points out that in order to reach those patrons who are offline, the method of outreach needs to be offline as well. How are folks going to read something on the library homepage about getting computer help if they can't turn on a computer or don't have Internet access at home?

Sometimes the nitty gritty gets ... well, a bit too gritty. West spends an inordinate amount of time explaining what the Internet is and how it works and also describes some of the companies who make some of the technology tools we use. The information is truly fascinating and enlightening but might be a distraction for a busy librarian who is just looking to get some concrete ideas for ways to implement technology instruction. Without a Net doesn't disappoint on that score--there are plenty of tips and tools along with an impressive bibliography to aid even the busiest librarian in making some decisions on how to create a technology instruction plan.

What works really well in this book are some of the not-so-obvious things to consider when trying to bridge the tech divide. Users look at librarians as having a great deal of informational clout. West makes the case that it's important we don't inflict our own personal technology biases on them. At times, our own attitudes about technology can be a "disservice to the patron's understanding of technology." Our job is to offer them the tools they need to navigate the world of technology. We need to move beyond presenting technology as an obstacle to overcome (since even the tech "challenged" are using some forms of technology) and present it as something we can all adapt to.

There is a lot to take away from this book, like the comprehensive questions in Chapter 3 to use for outreach to assess a community's comfort and skill level with technology. There are also successful examples of libraries that are bridging the technology gap on limited resources. One may think that it's fairly common sense to know how to address the learning curve between the tech haves and the have-nots, but as West points out, the solutions are not so simple. Technology instruction is more complex than what a few quick-fix approaches can possibly achieve. The hope is that this book will provide librarians with ideas to influence and guide their own technology plans. It certainly does that and more.

Trevar Riley-Reid is currently an academic librarian at Kean University in Union, N.J. She has an MLIS from Rutgers School of Communication and Information with an emphasis on digital libraries and an EdM in secondary English education.