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Your Mission: Technology Guru

by on February 6, 2017

While 77 percent of Americans have smartphones and nearly 50 percent have tablets, that doesn’t necessarily mean they know how to use them well. A recent international study shows nearly 40 percent of adults age 16-65 have little to no technology skills.

“The caller would like you to talk a little about e-books,” said the radio announcer as my colleague and I talked on the air about library services. So, I launched into my elevator speech about how our digital collection is in high demand, but our physical collection is still our core service. I chatted away about all the e-books and e-audiobooks in our collection.

And then a second caller asked a follow up, “What is an e-book?” An eye opener for sure.

It’s easy to assume the digital divide is closing as public librarians who use technology every day in our work. Evidence shows this isn’t the case.

Recently, the Nielsen Norman Group released an article on an international study by Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) [1]. The researchers tested adults aged 16-65 in countries including the United States, Japan, the Netherlands, the UK, Germany, Singapore and Canada. One of theresults found26 percent of the adult population has no technology skills. Of those with skills, most are limited to using basic email or web browser functions [2].

In the table below you can see the level of skills defined and the OECD study averages. You can see the full breakout by country in the article. The ranges do not vary much when broken down by country.

Skill level Skill description % of adult population
No technology skills No computer experience or unable to use a mouse to scroll on a web page. 26%
Below Level 1 Able to complete an “easy” task such as deleting an email in an app. 14%
Level 1 Able to use email software or a web browser, able to complete a task like “reply all” to an email. 29%
Level 2 Able to a document in email on a topic that was sent by specific sender last year. 26%
Level 3 Able to schedule a meeting room in a scheduling application, using information contained in several email messages or “know what percentage of the emails sent by John Smith last month were about sustainability.” 5%

So while 77 percent of Americans have a smartphone and nearly 50 percent have a tablet, that doesn’t necessarily mean they know how to use them well [3]. We hear stories like this all over our library system. For example, an elderly couple came in to meet with one of our librarians after purchasing a smartphone and a tablet from a local retailer. They wanted to know how to make phone calls and connect to the Internet. Our librarian was more than happy to help.

You might not have woken up this morning feeling like a technology guru but reality is your skills are likely in the top quarter of the world’s population. As a public librarian, your mission, should to choose to accept it, is to bridge the digital divide. We have our work cut out for us. Don’t assume your definition of “basic skills” is the same as the next patron who comes to your desk for tech help. If someone asks you about e-books, “Do you know what they are?” might need to be your first reference interview question.


[1] Nielsen, Jakob. “The Distribution of Users’ Computer Skills: Worse Than You Think.” Nielsen Norman Group. November 13, 2016. Accessed Jan. 21, 2017.  https://www.nngroup.com/articles/computer-skill-levels/

[2] OECD (2016), Skills Matter: Further Results from the Survey of Adult Skills, OECD Skills Studies, OECD Publishing, Paris. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264258051-en

[3] Smith, Aaron.  “Record shares of Americans now own smartphones, have home broadband.” Jan, 12 2017. Pew Research Center. Accessed Jan. 21, 2017. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/01/12/evolution-of-technology/


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