On 28 April, IFLA led a virtual session at the 2022 WSIS Forum, exploring innovative approaches to shared and public access for digital inclusion. Drawing on the experiences of public and community libraries, the workshop highlighted good practices and ways to maximise the impacts and reach of these services.

Every year, the World Summit on the Information Society Forum brings together the ‘ICT for development’ multistakeholder community. Universal access to ICTs and internet connectivity remains a key priority for this policy dialogue – and IFLA and voices from the global library field continue to engage with the discussion to share successes, replicable intervention models and insights from library-based digital inclusion initiatives.

With only a few years left to deliver on high-level global targets for universal and affordable connectivity and digital literacy, public access in places like libraries remains an effective and affordable way to boost meaningful digital inclusion. At the same time, since the inclusion of public access in the initial WSIS Action Lines and Targets, our understanding of meaningful and user-centric connectivity standards has evolved – and so have public access solutions, to meet the changing connectivity needs of their communities.

To explore the ways innovation in library digital inclusion services helps achieve this, the IFLA-led session brought together 4 experts to share insights and experiences from the initiatives they are leading:

Ab. Velasco, a manager at Innovation, Learning & Service Planning of the Toronto Public Library, introduced TPL’s new and evolving programming around digital privacy, digital safety and algorithmic literacy;

Shadreck Ndinde, a lecturer at the National University of Science and Technology in Zimbabwe, discussed how the Rural Libraries Resources Development Project leverages ICTs in its mobile outreach to rural and remote areas;

Arjun Maharjan, the senior ICT and projects coordinator at READ Nepal, outlined the structure and impacts of the Tech Age Girls programme in READ community library and resource centers in the country;

Ramune Petuchovaite, the manager of the Public Library Innovation Programme at Electronic Information for Libraries (EIFL), summarized the learnings from (and new approaches to) their work to help boost libraries’ capacity for creative use of public access.

These initiatives offer useful examples and lessons around innovation in library digital inclusion work:

1)     Connecting digital skills training with digital rights education

Libraries are in no way strangers to a broader conceptualisation of digital literacy. Beyond digital skills fundamentals, countless libraries have added programming around advanced ICT competencies, media and information literacy, or online safety basics, to name a few.

Toronto Public Library offers an example of how digital rights awareness and capacity-building can be effectively added to this mix. Through invited guest experts, experts-in-residence, collaborations with local government, and events led directly by library staff, this programming has covered a wide range of digital rights topics: data privacy, ethics and bias in AI and algorithms, ‘digital detox’, smart cities. All these speak to the many ways people’s fundamental rights – to access information, non-discrimination, to health, to privacy – take shape in the digital information environment, what communities should know, and what resources they have at their disposal to help exercise their rights.

The interest these activities have been enjoying indicates that they speak to a genuine public need – these programmes saw regularly returning audiences, and even participants who had expressed an interest in pursuing careers in this field.

At the same time, the experiences of READ Nepal shows how digital skills learning can be effectively combined with a training focusing on ‘softer’ skills. The Tech Age Girls Nepal programme combines digital literacy training with leadership, project planning, and decision-making capacity-building. This approach was developed specifically for girls and young women aged 13-22, with the aim of uplifting and empowering both the training participants and their broader communities.

2)     Reaching new audiences

Naturally, many libraries continuously take stock of the impacts of their digital inclusion work. Here, one of the key premises has always been that library initiatives based on public access help serve diverse audiences, and can be particularly valuable for those most likely to be digitally excluded.

The ICT and internet access services brought to rural schools in Zimbabwe via the RLRDP mobile outreach illustrate this capacity very well. Among other RLRDP services, this model consists of a donkey-drawn mobile cart with a mounted solar-powered computer – which visits a range of schools on a set schedule. This is combined with educational activities for learners, training for local educators, and access to digital content where possible – from health to education to market information. Such a compound approach benefits students, graduates, researchers, teachers, and local farmers.

The inclusivity of RLRDP services has also helped attract and serve new audiences. Following the rollout of the mobile ICT library services, for example, the organisers spotted adults returning to school.

Another example of successfully reaching new audiences comes from TPL. At the start of the pandemic, there was a rapid shift to digital in the library’s programming around digital skills. Here, TPL saw an influx of international audiences and viewership for these virtual events. Now such activities are developed with these audiences in mind as well – and, in light of their popularity, there is a clear plan to maintain digital programming even as a gradual reintroduction of physical programs and events becomes possible.

3)     Cascade training models and peer-to-peer training

Another branch of innovation lies with libraries’ experiments with diverse training models. This can include, for example, peer-to-peer training among librarians themselves. For years, one of the key elements of the Public Library Innovation Programme (PLIP) of Electronic Information For Libraries (EIFL) has been training public librarians in transition economies to creatively and confidently build ICT and public access services.

This stems from an acknowledgement of an important need – not only is it crucial to provide connectivity infrastructure for libraries, but also up-to-date skills and capacity-building for library staff, to make the most effective use of it. PLIP training programmes often entail, for example, not only digital skills for library representatives but also training around service design, advocacy, outreach and marketing, and service impact evaluation.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, this capacity-building approach has been rearranged with a strong focus on local peer-to-peer training. Over 2 years, the PLIP programme has conducted a training-of-trainers for more than 60 local experts across 4 countries, who are then set to reach hundreds of their colleagues. This, of course, has also meant expanding the training-of-trainers curriculum to include teaching competencies, particularly for adult target groups.

Another innovative program design by Tech Age Girls (TAG) Nepal envisions learners from the community becoming ‘cascade’ trainers themselves. From the start, the Tech Age Girls training is divided into three phases, each covering an increasingly advanced ICT and soft skills curriculum. The participants who progress towards the third phase are also taught competencies which enable them to act as community ambassadors and to design community projects – and share what they themselves have learned in further cascade training sessions. As such, the program is able to reach and benefit an even broader number of people, and to power momentum at a community level.

4)     Tailored interventions and participatory co-design

One of the recurring themes throughout the four cases was bespoke digital inclusion approaches, tailored for a specific target group or location.

In some cases, this can mean adapting an existing model or approach. For example, in the latest iteration of the EIFL PLIP training, a baseline curriculum for librarians has been adapted and somewhat modified for each of the countries where the programme is rolled out.

Identifying community needs and local resources is, of course, a key task when adapting existing or developing new intervention models. In Zimbabwe, for example, RLRDP’s selection of digital materials and ICT-enabled activities was adjusted for each of the locations the mobile library serves: from supplementary fishing information in one province to resources on farming and market information in another, and beyond.

Such a community needs analysis is also explicitly factored into the TAG Nepal programme; there, it is embedded into a bottom-up process which the program graduates can subsequently launch in their communities. The process focuses on identifying community needs and challenges, facilitating a dialogue with local leaders and stakeholders, and mapping (and launching) possible solutions.

These are just some of the shared good practices and innovation ideas the invited experts have raised. If you would like to find out more about these learnings and initiatives – from the intervention design to registered impacts – you are welcome to watch the full session recording on the WSIS Forum 2022 website!