From Availability to Accessibility: Why the Detroit Public Library Began Partnering with Coin Laundromats

Availability ≠ Accessibility

Increasing the availability of information does not necessarily increase its accessibility. What’s the difference?

Margaret is a mother with two kids in elementary school. She purchases Internet for her family at home, but does not know how to use the school’s web portal to help her children find their homework assignments. In this case, the school’s web portal is technically available, but is it accessible? How do Margaret and her family learn the digital skills required to use the school’s web portal? 

In the District of Columbia, the Libraries Without Borders team has been supporting the Mayor’s Office in efforts to expand the accessibility of legal information. Recently, we have been working with José, a Salvadoran father who has a library card and goes to use the library’s computer for Internet access. When we first met José, he did not know that free and reliable legal resources existed online to help him answer his questions regarding Temporary Protective Status. How do you Google a question you do not know the specific vocabulary to phrase? How do you sort through all the answers that come up, and avoid the ads that provide false or misleading information?

Many people that we work with do not find high-quality, web-based resources to be accessible, even though the resources are technically available. While accessibility is near impossible without availability, availability without accessibility is perhaps even more disappointing. In order to translate availability to accessibility, it's important to remember the importance of social connections. Community partnerships shape how people actually engage with new technologies.

The families and individuals that need web-based resources often have different priorities than the organizations who are attempting to serve them. For these families and individuals, urgent priorities include making enough money to provide shelter, food and… clean clothing! While we know literacy, and digital literacy is important, it often takes a back seat to these more basic needs. This consideration of more basic needs is what led us to offer digital literacy programs inside laundromats.

Reducing Accessibility Barriers

Print more flyers, offer subsidized public transportation passes, and re-write the curriculum! That’s what a lot of cash-strapped digital literacy organizations do when their programs face low attendance, retention, and completion rates. Yet even after these efforts, their programs still face challenges engaging participants. After network infrastructure is deployed in an area, what are other barriers that prevent full digital inclusion?

In our work, we have seen three foundational “accessibility” barriers that more inclusive program designs must address.

First, we encounter “skills barriers.” As everything moves to the Internet, who is there to teach you how to create an email, how to use a web browser, or how to read and interpret web-based resources? Creating another app won’t solve this problem, especially if your audience doesn’t know how to download an app. We believe it is critical to increase opportunities for people to learn digital literacy skills with a facilitator, and to supplement digital literacy workshops with basic literacy and numeracy support as needed.

Second, we encounter “scheduling barriers.” One participant in an entrepreneurship programs at the Detroit Public Library stopped attending after the second class. We asked her why she had dropped out, hoping to receive feedback on our curriculum or teaching methodology. She responded saying she had actually enjoyed the first two classes, and only dropped out because she works at two different restaurants and every week her work schedule changes. She wanted to come to our weekly program that met at the library on Tuesdays at 6PM, but could not afford to miss one of her shifts. She was embarrassed that she had dropped out, and she has not signed up for another library program since. Programs that meet at the same time and place each week are not always accessible to people who work in service industries with unpredictable work schedules. Even those who have more “regular” 9 to 5 jobs may find that their work schedules preclude them from accessing library resources, particularly in communities where libraries are decreasing hours of operation during the week or closing on the weekends due to budget cuts. We have found much greater success in increasing enrollment, retention, and completion of digital literacy programs when we bring our programs outside of the walls of the library to meet people where they are – like at their local laundromat.

Third, we encounter “psychosocial barriers.” At the Parkman Branch of the Detroit Public Library, many library users find digital literacy programs to be daunting or irrelevant. Societal stigmas exacerbate many people’s insecurities with learning new skills, particularly new tech skills. For many of us, learning something new can trigger feelings of vulnerability. Digital skills are no different. The development of digital literacy frequently requires a baseline of comfort and trust between individual participants, facilitators, and institutions. In our contexts, we have seen how the creation of peer support networks increases the completion rates of programs more effectively than offering prizes for course completion. We believe that it is important to design programs that make participants feel safe to ask questions -- no matter how basic -- about what they do not know. We also believe that it is critical to design programs that broaden and reinforce peer social-support networks.

Sometimes, we hear people say that they do not want to enroll in digital literacy programs because “I’ve been doing fine so far.” We’ve found that library patrons often weigh the delayed benefit of learning a new skill against the the immediate relief of getting a job that will allow them to “get by”. By meeting families at laundromats, we have found that this time-investment to learn new skills feels less risky. Learning new skills inside laundromats does not conflict with other urgent tasks at hand.

Origin Story of the Wash & Learn Initiative (WALI)

To reduce accessibility barriers for digital inclusion, Libraries Without Borders partnered with the Parkman Branch of the Detroit Public Library to create the first pilot of the Wash & Learn Initiative (WALI). How did we come to focus our outreach efforts at laundromats?

Libraries Without Borders began creating pop-up libraries in Detroit in 2016. We facilitated library programs in public parks, in train stations, on street corners, in legal aid waiting rooms, and in laundromats. Laundromats were by far our most successful pop-up sites. Laundromats provide an ideal space to facilitate digital literacy workshops. Laundromat clients return weekly, and they wait an average of 90 minutes for their laundry to wash and dry.

Finding laundromats to be a successful space for families to complete facilitated learning programs, Libraries Without Borders partnered with the Parkman Branch of the Detroit Public Library to create the Wash & Learn Initiative (WALI). WALI is not just about putting a bookshelf in the laundromat and handing out books. We also install a curated WiFi hotspot in the back office and engage local organizations to further activate the laundromat spaces with in-person programming. Together with the local public library, we adapt the resources at each laundromat to address the particular but varied needs of the families at each location. The first pilot program of WALI was sponsored by the Knight Foundation and developed in partnership with the United Way of Southeastern Michigan, Brilliant Detroit, the Coin Laundry Association, and Too Small to Fail. 

At the first WALI sites in Detroit, we removed a couple of folding stations in the partnering laundromats, then installed laptops and WiFi hotspots. By facilitating digital literacy programs at the laundromat during the laundromat’s peak hours, we removed barriers associated with scheduling. It also reduced the time and resources required for us to recruit new participants. At peak hours, some laundromats have over 40 families waiting for their laundry to wash and dry. Within a couple of weeks, we knew that we were onto something. The first time we removed laptops from Coinless Laundromat to update software, laundromat clients walked to the Parkman Branch library to ask why the laptops were removed and when they would be replaced. This let us know that a) people were using the curated space we created in the laundromat; and b) that those people now knew that their local library is a place where they can go to find resources and information about what’s happening in the community.

In this section, "I" is Qumisha Goss

The Detroit Public Library's mission is to enlighten and empower people by providing diverse and dynamic pathways to literacy and learning. While the library offers many resources to support Detroit residents, it can be difficult for people to get to a branch for many reasons, whether it be their work schedule or home life responsibilities. For us at the Parkman Branch of the Detroit Public Library, we see WALI as a natural extension of our mission statement. By supporting WALI we are able to be present in the communities. People feel that you truly care for and are invested in them when you make the effort to come to them. This effort has allowed our librarians to make personal connections with new individuals in our community. Often times when people come to the library, they have a set of tasks to complete and then they rush off to finish other errands. Doing laundry is one of those tasks that is necessary, but also has a lot of down time where people are open and available to try something new as they wait. Supporting WALI has also become a way for librarians to make ourselves and our available resources known to the public. At one WALI program, I met a mother and her three children at the laundromat who had never been to the Parkman Branch of the Detroit Public Library, just a few blocks away. None of them had library cards. By the end of the summer, everyone in the family had a library card and the three kids had completed Detroit Public Library’s summer reading program. One of the students even won a prize for accruing the most points for minutes read.

I have also appreciated the opportunity allowed by WALI to work with local business owners in building a more united community. WALI really hinges on the cooperation of all parties.  As our city continues to evolve, we can make better partnerships between the public and private sector that are mutually beneficial and focused on growing a strong and capable community.

In the articles that follow in this series, we will share more details about the public-private partnerships being built between individual library branches and laundromat businesses and offer case studies and lessons learned for laundromat digital inclusion programs from a variety of urban, suburban, and rural contexts. We imagine a future whereby librarians embed digital-inclusion programs in the community, meeting in laundromats and other spaces where people gather.

ChangAllister Chang is Executive Director of Libraries Without Borders. Qumisha Goss is the Pre-Professional Librarian at the Parkman Branch of the Detroit Public LibraryGoss