Innovators in Digital Inclusion: Multnomah County Library

Innovators in Digital Inclusion: Multnomah County Library

Angela Siefer
Angela Siefer
Broadband access and adoption are essential for full participation in our society, for education, for public health, and for public safety. But nagging gaps in broadband adoption exist in too many U.S. communities. In Digital Inclusion and Meaningful Broadband Adoption Initiatives, Dr. Colin Rhinesmith explored successful, local efforts to help low-income individuals and families overcome the barriers to broadband adoption. Dr. Rhinesmith finds that successful digital inclusion organizations focus on: 1) Providing low-cost broadband, 2) Connecting digital literacy training with relevant content and services, 3) Making low-cost computers available, and 4) Operating public access computing centers.

In this series, the Benton Foundation and the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) explore the origins, strategies, challenges and funding mechanisms for successful digital inclusion organizations. In this article, we examine the Multnomah County Library.

Summary

Like most public libraries across the United States, Multnomah County Library (MCL) has long provided access to public computers, the Internet (through Wi-Fi), and personalized training to the community it serves. MCL has leveraged grants and partnerships to provide tailored services to community members with low technology literacy and few resources. The library is a primary partner in a collaborative, regional digital inclusion effort that includes:1) documenting community needs, 2) increasing access to low-cost devices and broadband service, and 3) delivering training where it’s needed most. In recent years, the library has focused increasingly on technology-related service in languages other than English, including Spanish, Russian, Vietnamese and Chinese.

Mission

Multnomah County Library is the oldest public library west of the Mississippi, with a history that reaches back to 1864. Today, Central Library and 18 neighborhood libraries make up a system that offers more than two million books and other materials. Oregon's largest public library, MCL serves nearly one-fifth of the state's population.

Multnomah County Library’s mission is to empower its community to learn and create. MCL is a key community asset, serving people and enabling individual and community development.

Many of MCL’s strategic priorities relate to digital inclusion efforts. The library evaluates program offerings, staff competencies and collection development in alignment with these priorities:

  1. Reflect and serve a diverse community
  2. Enable creation and learning
  3. Build digital literacy
  4. Re-imagine library service and spaces

Multnomah County Library’s Digital Inclusion Work

Overview
Digital inclusion is at the core of Multnomah County Library’s mission. The library has:

  • Innovative service delivery platforms that tackle poverty and barriers to information access head-on;
  • New models of support for students, families and educators; and
  • An organizational focus on keeping the library relevant and adaptive to the needs of its community.

Multnomah County Library is the largest provider of free broadband access, equipment, and training in the greater Portland area. MCL will host approximately two million free Wi-Fi and public access computing sessions this year. The library also offers about 1,900 classes, open labs, and individual tutoring sessions each year to help people get online, use their devices, and build digital literacy skills.

MCL does not provide access to low-cost home computers directly, but does work closely with Free Geek, a non-profit that provides recycled computers to low-income people. In particular, MCL’s Digital Inclusion Fellow initiated an earn-a-computer program through which participants’ attendance in four digital literacy classes result in a computer they can take home for free.


Table 1. Multnomah County Library’s Digital Inclusion Activities (Rhinesmith)
Providing low-cost broadband no
Connecting digital literacy training with relevant content and services yes
Making low-cost computers available no
Operating public access computing centers yes



1) Reflecting and serving a diverse community
In order to serve every patron, Multnomah County Library offers resources that advance opportunity and equity both at the libraries and in the community. Reading materials and programs are available in English, Spanish, Russian, Vietnamese, Chinese and Somali. MCL has made a concerted effort for more than a decade -- through its “We Speak Your Language” initiative -- to hire staff with bilingual and bicultural skills and experience. MCL has also conducted community focus groups to determine community needs and tailor programs and services accordingly. Digital literacy classes and individual-help sessions in the We Speak Your Language areas are an important part of the service offered to the MCL community.

2) Enabling creation and learning
The Rockwood Branch Library makerspace is a resource to develop the community's creators. This collaborative learning environment was made possible by a $1.3 million investment and brings STEAM learning—including coding, circuit building, 3-D design, and printing—along with personal instruction and mentoring, to young people, especially girls, in a high-need community. Support for the makerspace comes from The Library Foundation and the Mt. Hood Cable Regulatory Commission through funds provided by cable companies.

3) Building digital literacy
Multnomah County Library champions the goal of connecting everyone online. While the library has offered traditional technology-training classes for many years, MCL’s “Book-A-Librarian”(1) better meets patrons’ needs. MCL information services staff use this model system-wide. About two-thirds of these sessions involve computer-skills support or help with using a personal device to access library e-content. The library collects three outcome measures, based on the methodology of the Public Library Association’s Project Outcome, for these appointments. Data for the last full quarter of service (July-September 2016) showed that:

  • 97.6% of Book-A-Librarian users agreed or strongly agreed that they were satisfied with the results of the appointment.
  • 97.5% agreed or strongly agreed that they were more confident in their skills/knowledge/abilities
  • 97.2% agreed or strongly agreed that the skills/knowledge/abilities they gained would help them pursue their goals.

4) Re-imagine library service and spaces
MCL has adopted creative solutions to its unique challenges. It is the nation’s third-busiest library (by transaction volume), but operates in the smallest amount of space (by far) of any library system serving a population of its size. Community partnerships are key to these solutions and have resulted in outreach services with specific areas of focus on immigrants, refugees and non-native English speakers.

5) Bringing Services Where They Are Needed Most
The easternmost part of Multnomah County is home to many immigrants, refugees, and people of color who have been displaced by gentrification and skyrocketing housing costs in the urban core. In 2014, MCL hired a Bilingual Spanish Regional Technology Coordinator, serving four geographically-centered locations in east Multnomah County, to address some of these issues.

This position, held by Carlos Galeana, is responsible for coordinating four library computer labs; planning, coordinating, and delivering public technology training programs; creating and delivering outreach programs and plans to attract patrons who need those services; training and developing staff; overseeing volunteers who support this work; and serving on the library’s Public Training Team.(2)

6) Digital Inclusion Network
The library’s digital inclusion relationship with the city goes back to 2010, when city staff read local news coverage about use of library devices and broadband access by Multnomah County residents who were reeling from the effects of the Great Recession. Due to the small footprint of MCL’s buildings, which limited the number of wired public computers available, MCL was having trouble keeping up with demand. Mt. Hood Cable Regulatory Commission awarded the library a Community Technology Grant, derived from cable franchise fees, with which MCL purchased Chromebooks to augment Internet access in the libraries.

In 2011, Professor Stephen Reder and Research Assistant Jill Castek of Portland State University’s Literacy, Language and Technology Research Group invited Cindy Gibbon, MCL’s Access and Information Services Director, to join the advisory panel for an Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) National Leadership Grant, Tutor Facilitated Digital Literacy Acquisition in Hard to Serve Populations. As part of this project, the research team identified best practices that advance digital literacy work. Their research(3) confirms the importance of community partnerships:

One overarching theme that ran across our data suggested that successful programs operated within a network of connected community resources, and it was this interconnectedness that gave way to collaboration that benefited the organization but also benefited the individuals working within the organization such as program coordinators, tutors, and learners.

The research ultimately led leaders from Portland State University and MCL to join with leaders from Multnomah County, the City of Portland Office of Community Technology (OCT), and the Mt. Hood Cable Regulatory Commission (MHCRC) to begin formation of the Portland/Multnomah County Digital Inclusion Network.

In the fall of 2014, MCL Director Vailey Oehlke and OCT Manager Mary Beth Henry invited a diverse group of community partners to the first convening of the Digital Inclusion Network (DIN). More than 60 organizations were represented, and a core group continues to meet monthly. With funding and leadership from OCT, MCL, and Multnomah County, the DIN group built the Portland/Multnomah County Digital Equity Action Plan.

Digital Inclusion Network leadership conducted focus groups in traditionally-underserved communities and engaged a diverse group of community stakeholders, creating a plan that addresses all five DIN-identified digital inclusion goals:

  1. Ensure access to affordable high-speed Internet and devices for those in need.
  2. Provide training and support to ensure that everyone has the skills to use digital technology to enhance their quality of life.
  3. Empower community partners to bridge the digital divide through funding, coordination, training and staff resources.
  4. Create opportunities for jobs in the digital economy for underserved populations.
  5. Build a policy framework that supports digital equity and meaningful Internet adoption, leading to better community outcomes.

Portland’s Office of Community Technology hosted the meetings and managed the project consultant. The library co-led the work and helped write the plan. OCT and MCL also co-led the successful effort to have the plan officially adopted by the Portland City Council, Multnomah County Board of Commissioners, and Library District Board in the spring of 2016.

Multnomah County Library is now working cooperatively with the same partners and stakeholders to develop an implementation plan. Through the work on the Digital Equity Action Plan, the library realized its own services and programs were primarily focused on in-library approaches to training, devices, high-speed internet, and Wi-Fi. Through implementation of the Digital Equity Action Plan, the library looks to impact access to personal devices and home broadband, as well as build its own capacity and the capacity of community partners to provide culturally- and language-appropriate training.

7) Digital Inclusion Fellow
In 2016, the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN) selected Multnomah County Library to host a Digital Inclusion Fellow -- a one-year, limited-duration position and part of the Digital Inclusion Fellowship program created in partnership with and supported by Google Fiber. Charly Eaton, the fellow, is now working with community-based organizations (CBOs), including Free Geek (another Fellowship host), to implement digital inclusion programs. Volunteers at CBOs are trained to train those they serve and, when needed, can make use of a mobile training lab. Participants receive computer literacy training and earn refurbished desktop computers through Free Geek.

Two graduates pose with Charly Eaton, the Multnomah County Library Digital Inclu
Two graduates pose with Charly Eaton, the Multnomah County Library Digital Inclusion Fellow
The digital inclusion programs are positively-impacting many lives. One of the first cohorts to be trained is a group of Somali women served by Human Solutions, a Portland-based nonprofit dedicated to combatting homelessness and poverty. Ayan Abdiyo, Resident Services Specialist for Human Solutions says,

The Somali ladies are really interested in furthering their skills and have asked about other classes they could take to help them learn more about computers. It will really be helpful for them to practice more of their skills in the home, learn how to navigate the web, and be able to check the grades of their children from home. All the families have children and can not afford to buy computers, therefore, getting the opportunity to learn how to use the computer and get a free computer at the end means a lot to them.


Additionally, Eaton is working with other digital inclusion partners in Multnomah County to increase the awareness of and access to affordable broadband, free or low-cost computers, technology fairs, and offsite training. For example, the partnership with Free Geek, cultivated through the DIN, has also resulted in Multnomah County recycling all of its used technology (including library computers) through Free Greek, meaning the technology will end up with people who otherwise would not be able to afford it.

Financial Model

Because digital inclusion activities directly support the library’s strategic priorities, a significant portion of the library’s budget goes toward publicly-available Wi-Fi, and computers, as well as staff-conducted technology training, both in small classes and one-on-one settings.

Additionally, the library has received financial support for digital inclusion initiatives from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, The Library Foundation, and the Mt. Hood Cable Regulatory Commission. The NTEN Digital Inclusion Fellow is funded in part by Google Fiber.

Articulating Success

“The strengthening partnerships we've developed through the Digital Inclusion Network (DIN) have led to coordinated data collection processes. Looking at similar data across programs will help us all understand where we are succeeding and where we can improve as we implement the Digital Equity Action Plan (DEAP). This work has been well-received, especially by our partners who may not have deep resources for developing their own data collection methods.”   -- Cindy Gibbon Access and Information Services Director Multnomah County Library


The DIN partners have identified three key questions that we want to answer for each of the strategic actions in the Digital Equity Acton Plan:
  1. Are we reaching targeted populations through project activities?
  2. Have we identified promising/effective activities for addressing the digital divide?
  3. How has the DEAP empowered organizations to build capacity to address the digital divide?

The targeted populations include low income individuals and families, older adults, people of color, people with disabilities, and people with limited English proficiency.

To be considered promising, activities should:

  • Engage the targeted population in the activity design, planning and assessment.
  • Be designed based on best practices and research.
  • Provide informative feedback to practitioners about the learning progress of the targeted population.
  • Allow for the targeted population learners to self-assess progress.

To be considered effective over time, activities should

  • Reach the targeted population
  • Be potentially scalable to other targeted populations
  • Indicate evidence of reducing the digital divide for a targeted population

Activities help build capacity if, as a result of the DEAP, the organization

  • formed new partnerships;
  • improved its ability to meet client needs;
  • refocused resources or identified new resources to support digital equity work;
  • expanded its digital equity services and/or client base; and/or
  • placed a higher priority on digital equity work

The lead partners for each of the strategic actions are working to collect data that will allow them to report results against the key questions. The digital inclusion fellows from the Library and Free Geek have shared pre- and post- survey forms they developed for their work with housing authority residents. The survey instrument, available in English and Spanish so far, collects demographic information about program participants and assesses their needs before training and services are offered. After they complete the program, participants are asked simple questions to assess outcomes, such as whether they have signed up for internet at home as a result of the program or whether they feel more confident in using a keyboard and mouse as a result of their participation. These questions are patterned after the work of the Public Library Association’s Project Outcome. In addition, DIN partners can use a Google form to report success stories that will allow us to gauge effectiveness and capacity building.

The Digital Inclusion Network is actively working to create implementation plans to ensure the achievement of all the Digital Equity Action Plan goals, even while the library and its partners make measureable progress on many fronts.

Active partnerships and collaboration are already making good on the regional coalition’s overarching goals to “provide training and support to ensure that everyone has the skills to use digital technology to enhance their quality of life,” and to empower “community partners to bridge the digital divide through funding, coordination, training and staff resources.”

For example, the earn-a-computer program, offered in partnership between the library and Free Geek and staffed by Charly Eaton and Free Geek’s fellow, Sara Rasmussen, provides five computer and internet training sessions to digitally excluded target populations. When they complete training, the participants receive their own refurbished computer from Free Geek. The program will also raise awareness of the options for low-cost home broadband access and measures adoption rates among participants. Two cohorts of Somali women have completed training and earned their computers. Eaton is now working with housing authority staff to offer the program in several properties throughout the county.

The Digital Inclusion Fellows, MetroEast Community Media,(4) and library and county information technology staff are beginning to build a searchable, web-­based database of digital inclusion programs, services, activities, and training tools for use by community organizations.

The library recognizes that outcomes of personal success and transformation are more difficult to document than outputs like Wi-Fi and public computing sessions. Desired outcomes include:

  • Increased understanding of the value of Internet use,
  • Increased proficiency in computer skills,
  • Increases in community-based organization staff trained to improve the community's digital literacy, and
  • Increased awareness and utilization of training, affordable computers, and broadband.

Eaton is also working with housing authority staff to administer surveys to measure program impact over time. Collecting contact information from digital literacy training program participants allows the library to follow up with a survey three months after the training is complete to determine if project outcomes were reached, including subscription to broadband at home, ongoing use of new computer skills, and job attainment among job-seeking participants.

Conclusion

Multnomah County Library is eager to continue and increase its work and coordination in support of digital equity. As the ways in which we all work, live, and connect rely more and more on digital access and literacy, the need for digital inclusion services deepens just as it widens. The library’s goal is to build upon productive and established partnerships and coordinated efforts with government, business, nonprofits, and community based organizations to better serve those with the fewest resources.


Notes:
  1. Book-A-Librarian is a focused and intentional reference appointment between a staff member and a patron which typically lasts up to 30 minutes or longer. Appointments are usually made ahead of time to give patrons focused reference assistance. However, “walk-ins” can be counted as a Book-A-Librarian as long as the staff member has the necessary coverage to meet with the patron uninterrupted (i.e. colleagues can provide desk coverage) and has communicated this need with colleagues and/or a manager.
  2. The Public Training Tea is responsible for overseeing training offered to the public. This includes facilitated use of online learning resources, office products classes like word processing and web design, e-book/audiobook training and library resource classes.
  3. Jacobs, G., Castek, J., Pizzolato, D., Pendell, K., Withers, E., & Reder, S. (2015). Community connections. Digital literacy acquisition policy brief. http://archives.pdx.edu/ds/psu/16518
  4. A non-profit community television station in Gresham, Oregon.

Innovators in Digital Inclusion series
Angela Siefer is the Director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA). Angela envisions a world in which all members of society have the skills and resources to use the Internet for the betterment of themselves and their communities. Since 1997, Angela has worked on digital inclusion issues with local community organizations, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, state governments, and the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition. This work led Angela to co-found the National Digital Inclusion Alli- ance, a unified national voice for local technology training, home broadband access, and public broadband access programs. A profile of her written work is at angelasiefer.com.