As the Safer Internet month draws to a close, libraries around the world scale up, maintain and continue to explore new ways to champion digital literacy, online safety and wellbeing in their communities.

In a new interview, Pam Ryan discusses the experiences of Toronto Public Library: the different digital literacy learning formats TPL explored over the years; the initiatives running today; and the ways TPL has adjusted its digital literacy programming in light of the pandemic.

IFLA: What initiatives and activities to support digital skills learning and online privacy does the Toronto Public Library run at the moment?

Pam Ryan: Digital inclusion and literacy are among TPL’s five strategic priorities. Access to technology and the skills to navigate and use it are critical for all Torontonians to be successful, connected and well.

Our Digital Privacy initiatives began in 2016 and we offer programs and services to help Torontonians gain the digital literacy skills they need to succeed in the digital world. All of our strategic priorities are considered through an Equity Lens. We are committed to helping level the playing field for all Torontonians with a particular focus on equity-seeking groups and vulnerable populations, breaking down barriers to access and increasing inclusion so everyone who wants to use the library feels welcome and represented in our spaces, is able to access our services, and can benefit from the outcomes we’re driving.

In June 2019, the City of Toronto became a signatory on the Declaration of Cities for Digital Rights. As part of that adoption and in recognition of the work TPL already had begun in this area, the City Council funded a new position for TPL to be dedicated to the creation of programming to further digital safety and literacy in support of the Declaration’s five principles.

The first three of these principles speak to the importance of offering digital privacy programs and services: universal and equal access to the internet and digital literacy; privacy, data protection and security; transparency, accountability, and non-discrimination of data, content and algorithms.

The responses to our programs in the area of digital literacy and privacy have been very positive and there is a huge appetite for more. We will grow our programs in the coming years to further reflect the priorities of the Cities for Digital Rights declaration and our communities’ interests.


Toronro Public Library - Interview - Image 1

Photo by courtesy of Toronto Public Library

Could you tell us a bit more about the different formats and approaches to digital skills-building that you have explored over the past few years?

TPL has provided a variety of different formats and approaches to help our learners build their digital skills and awareness about privacy.

In-person programs are one key way we deliver this information. Our staff-led workshops have included a recurring four-part Digital Privacy series that teaches learners how to better understand the threats and myths about online security and how to strengthen their computer and online security. Staff have also hosted algorithmic literacy workshops to help learners understand the complexity of their online environments, including a Do-It-Yourself machine learning kit that supported self-directed tinkering. Most recently last October, we launched our Let’s Talk Privacy video series, which covered basic privacy concepts over 6 videos.

We continue to work with external experts and partners. Programs with external presenters have included speakers from the Canadian Civil Liberties Association’s Privacy, Surveillance, and Technology Project, the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario, the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, and leading academics and legal scholars that have covered a range of topics including privacy and freedom, privacy rights, and user privacy on the Web.

In 2018, we hosted a Digital Privacy Expo in partnership with Tor, the CitizenLab at the University of Toronto and the Digital Justice Lab. This full-day program attracted nearly 350 guests who attended sessions that covered privacy and security on the 21st Century Internet, Canadian privacy law, an insider’s look at spyware and malware and a panel on privacy tech featuring leading technologists.

In 2018, TPL hosted the Glass Room Experience, a temporary interactive art installation by Mozilla and Tactical that explored the companies and mechanisms that make our everyday technology and the connection to the Internet of Things. Participants were invited to play Fake or Real – a Glass Room exhibit – to see how smart they are in knowing about the world of smart devices.

That same year, the TOR browser was installed on our learning centre computers, which is a free and open source web browser that anonymizes your web traffic using the Tor network, making it easy to protect your identity online. Our intention is that, in order to help people learn how to protect themselves against online tracking, surveillance and censorship, we need the tools available for in-person instruction. This initiative won a 2019 American Library Association Presidential Citation for Innovative International Library Projects.

One of the big takeaways from our experiences is that there is such a hunger and need for this information. The community wants to learn more about these topics and how they affect their day-to-day life. We benefitted from the expertise of the larger community and it was through working with presenters and partners that we were able to amplify our staff’s expertise and our work to greater results.

TPL has long been very active in supporting digital literacy and skills-building for your communities. Did you adjust or adapt these activities in light of the COVID-19 pandemic?

When library branches closed in March 2020 as a result of the pandemic, TPL quickly transitioned our programs to online.

Our staff are hosting a wide variety of digital literacy and skills programs covering topics such as web and graphic design, coding, Adobe software, podcasting, photography and more. From April to December 2020, our Digital Innovation Team hosted nearly 120 online programs for over 1,700 learners.

The pandemic has and continues to expose key issues around privacy. Our online programs spotlighted these timely topics. External presenters spoke about artificial intelligence, privacy and social media in the age of COVID-19. We featured an interview with Canadian law professor Michael Geist about the creation and privacy considerations of the government’s COVID Alert App. Our Innovation Council presented a panel that shared the work of women leading efforts using AI and explored issues including gender and racial bias in AI and the importance of approaching AI through a diversity and inclusion lens.

Most recently this January, the library launched Seniors Tech Help, a pilot program that connects seniors via e-mail or phone to a library staff member who can provide one-on-one support with tech-related inquiries.

This March, we will host an Innovator in Residence on the topic of data privacy. This 10-week online residency features privacy lawyer Migan Migardichian who will host programs and workshops on topics such as privacy law, privacy design, smart cities, open data and even privacy as it relates to space law!


Toronto Public Library - Interview - Image 2


Photo by courtesy of Toronto Public Library

What advice would you give to libraries who would like to start building up or expanding their programming around digital skills and privacy?

Digital skills and privacy are universal topics and how you interpret these topics will be unique to the interests and needs of your community. Your staff will know best what interest your customers and by keeping up with the latest news, research and articles about this subject area.

You can take a look at what other libraries and community organizations have done. See if there are open and shared resources that you can draw on, adapt and build upon to meet the unique learning needs of your customers. Survey your staff teams as there will undoubtedly be individuals with the skills, knowledge and enthusiasm for these subject areas that can help build your programming.

Reach out to your community and connect with the academic or community agency experts who are examining or developing and providing services in this work. Bring them in to share their expertise and work. Partner with organizations and groups that are doing relevant and impactful work in this area to leverage their expertise and to connect them with your community.

Experiment! Be open to trying things out. Sometimes things will work out and you can find ways to scale them up. Sometimes, a program might not work out as you had imagined but there are also important lessons to be learned from these experiences.


Toronto Public Library

Pam Ryan, Director, Service Development & Innovation and TPL’s Innovation, Learning and Service Planning Team