Golden opportunity for public libraries to meet digital needs of women

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Women use the Internet 17% more than their male counterparts yet are underrepresented in programming and open source. Public libraries (and public schools) have a critical role to play with improving the dearth of diversity in coding and open source.

Over the holidays, I completely lost my unlimited home Internet access, which caused me to reflect on life for those without unlimited home Internet access at all. When I finally had my Internet access restored and retrieved the messages about's Youth in Open Source Week (was held January 13- 17) and Women in Open Source Week (this week, January 27 - February 7), I felt like banging my head.

Without unlimited home Internet access, there's no question that women and youth are hampered to code or participate in open source. And for many, unlimited home Internet access is simply unaffordable. Globally, the Internet has become a lifeline for women. Yet access is still inequitable and a digital divide looms large globally and in the US. Here in the US, Internet access is often slow, costly, and unfair.

The cost of Internet access is a huge barrier for female-headed households. Many single mothers struggle to put food on the table, never mind paying for Internet access. Moreover, with 47 million Americans receiving food assistance, single mothers comprise the bulk of them; these single mothers, in turn, feed their children with that food assistance for some food security. However, these single mothers are often in stagnant low-wage jobs and have little to no disposable income to pay for Internet access. Unlimited home Internet access then soon becomes a pipe dream. And open educational resources and opportunities for them and their children become inaccessible.

Public Internet access, of some form, is available at nearly every public library in the US. Over 90% of public libraries in the US provide free WiFi services. Over 64% of public libraries report being the only free provider of Internet access in their community. In over 87% of urban communities, the demand for computers outstrips the number of computers for public use.

Staggeringly, public libraries serve over 96.4% of the US population. The majority of library programs deservedly serve children. And while demand for library programs has spiraled up, so has the need for public computer access and digital technology.

Public libraries, though, often place restrictions on the use of their computer workstations and accessibility, and these restrictions may have a profound effect on the ability of women and/or youth to learn to code or become involved in open source. At my local library, for instance, there are six desktop computers for children to use and there are restrictions on their use. Among the restrictions, children are guaranteed only 30 minutes of total computer time per day. And that seems to be the standard policy at neighboring local public libraries as well.

When I was in library school, I had to learn HTML and CSS and needed much time to do so. If there had been a time limit to my Internet access to learn HTML and CSS, I wouldn't have gotten far. Most likely, I would have given up such an attempt to learn. And forget about 'real' programming or open source in this discussion. It requires much time, patience, and dedication to write code.

Many public libraries have storytime for toddlers and preschoolers or Legos clubs for older kids, but the idea of programming or open source with kids is alien. There are many opportunities for public libraries to jump on the bandwagon beyond coding though. Even if the public library lacks the funding to provide such open opportunities, they can still make a huge difference by offering meeting rooms or space for eager and motivated kids and/or women to learn about open source or code themselves. There are public libraries welcoming tweens to hold their own Mindcraft clubs using their space; without using any funds from the public libraries and kids usually bring their own computers too.

Public libraries (and public schools) have a critical role to play with improving the dearth of diversity in coding and open source. Georgia Tech's Barbara Ericson recently combed through data on the AP Computer Science 2013 results and reached some alarming conclusions: no females took the exam in Mississippi, Montana, and Wyoming, and eleven states had no black students engage in the exam. The statistics for hispanics were bleak too. EdSurge has suggested ways for public schools to improve these dismal numbers, but I suggest that public libraries may also look for ways to help improve the dismal numbers as well.

Public libraries may look to their statistics on women to support programs or find ways to play to improve the role of women and youth in coding and open source. Statistically, women, especially working women and working mothers, are significantly more likely than men (72% to 58%) to visit the library. Women are also more likely to have a library card than men. Since women are more likely to enter the public library, here's a golden opportunity for public libraries to serve their unmet digital needs; women use the Internet 17% more than their male counterparts yet are underrepresented in programming and open source. And yet, remember too, women, especially single mothers, are the ones more often bringing their children to the public library; so the rate of return to public libraries and the rate of return to society and open source is magnified.

Perhaps not surprisingly, San Jose Public Library has found a way help girls code and offers a great example. With help from the national nonprofit organization, Girls Who Code, girls in grades 9-12 may learn computer science fundamentals by programming apps and video games. Let's encourage others to jump on board.

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Carolyn Fox is an educator, librarian, historian, and an un/homeschooling mother. She lives in Massachusetts with her UK husband and son.


I have tried to offer computing workshops at local libraries in Atlanta and was told that we weren't allowed to install any software on their machines. I was going to install Scratch 1.4 which is free software. But, with Scratch 2.0 you don't even have to install any software for kids to use it. The current version of App Inventor also doesn't require any installation. There are several on-line sites that kids can use to learn programming that don't require any software to be installed: Khan academy, code academy, and code avengers.

This is a wonderful article. I know all too well what it is like to not have an internet connection at home. If it wasn't for my local public library and their free WiFi, I wouldn't be able to do any open source related work.

Like the article and Barbara Ericson both point out, the restrictions placed on library's computers do present a major barrier to learning to code and other activities (though I fully understand why the restrictions are in place). I know that if I had to the use the library's computers instead of my own laptop, I couldn't make any contributions to open source. I've actually had conversations about this with some of my librarian and educator acquaintances. Most of them get it, but some of them, unfortunately, don't seem to understand that using a library computer with a time limit and only having access to (often outdated) web browsers and Microsoft Office isn't the same thing as being able to really experiment and learn like someone could do with their own computer and 24/7 internet access.

Very insightful article Carolyn. There are ample resources online that give women and youth an opportunity to learn code. Libraries can provide access to those online resources and play a vital role in bridging the divide. Libraries, however need to open up. I think the government sector also needs to empower libraries to respond to this situation, especially in terms of expanding their budgets.

On the same note, I recently came across the following resource that teaches women to understand technology and the digital world in a very effective manner:

Thanks very much for the comments. Libraries have been grappling to move from a print-based word to one that embraces digital technology and information transmitted beyond the book or type. Some libraries seem to have an easier job than others in making the transition.

Nice article. Public libraries do play an important role. Another limitation is their timings which are restrictive and may not suit everyone. There should be effort towards cheaper internet too. I have my hopes pinned on google fiber!
we should make knowledge and technology widely accessible.

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