It’s a statistic we’ve heard time and time again in recent years: while 90% of future jobs will require digital skills, almost half (44%) of Europeans lack even the most basic digital skills, warns Ilona Kish.
Ilona Kish is the director of the Public Libraries 2020 project team in Brussels
The digital skills gap is a threat not only in terms of employment but also inclusion.
With more and more of our lives lived online – from filing tax returns to keeping in touch with relatives and applying for funding – those who are unable to get online due to a lack of skills are at serious risk of social exclusion.
Evidence also increasingly points to a “participation paradox.” Those who could benefit most from new technologies actually use them the least. People from disadvantaged groups, especially those living in poverty, are being hit hardest by technological advancements and the digital skills gap.
This is where libraries come in: open, trusted spaces staffed by information professionals who integrate the needs of their community into the services they offer. In more than 65,000 spaces across Europe, public libraries have adapted their offer to the needs of a digital age, not only offering free access to WiFi and computers but also leading the way in basic digital skill development.
This vision is embodied by Libraries Lead With Digital. The pilot project, run by Public Libraries 2020 in partnership with Google, was officially launched last week at Generation Code: Born at the Library in the library of the European Parliament. It aims to enforce digital skill training in libraries by compiling a toolkit, designed by library staff, for library staff.
Based on the expertise and collaboration of leading libraries from the UK and Ireland, the toolkit covers a range of digital skills from applying for jobs online to getting creative with coding and even helping both kids and adults better understand online safety.
By providing the right tools for library staff, the project aims to empower public libraries to effectively train their communities, especially those from the most hard-to-reach groups.
But it’s not just about digital literacy. In the run-up to the European elections (23-26 May 2019), the need for media literacy is growing. In an age of disinformation and fake news, people need to know not only how to get online, but how to navigate a never-ending stream of online news.
Libraries – which, let’s not forget, are run by qualified information professionals – are playing an important role in both educating their communities and advocating for the importance of media literacy.
For centuries, the mission of libraries has been to enable everyone to have access to information. That mission hasn’t changed, but the world we live in has. The internet has opened up a new world of information, which requires a whole new set of skills.
Libraries are having to transform their services, re-think their spaces and upskill their own staff in order to meet the needs of people who need to learn in different ways. For many, the public library is the only place they can turn for internet access and for digital skills training.
This is a lifeline, especially for people who are unemployed, recent migrants, lonely, or who do not otherwise get the support they need at home, work or school.
The EU has committed to improving digital skills in Europe, primarily via its Digital Education Action Plan. If we are to protect against the digital skills gap, we cannot overlook the importance of investment.
Europe’s 65,000 public libraries have real potential to reach the most vulnerable people in our societies and to deliver digital skills training to local communities.
The need for investment in both media and digital literacy is clear – for a stronger workforce and for a fairer society. Public libraries are a largely untapped resource for delivering this goal at a European level.