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Towards a Framework for Digital Justice in Public Libraries

by Amita Lonial on March 5, 2018

Guest contributor AMITA LONIAL (she/her/hers) is currently the Learning, Marketing and Engagement Principal Librarian at San Diego County (CA) Library. Prior to becoming a librarian, she spent eight years in the nonprofit sector organizing for racial and economic justice. She is deeply committed to exploring how libraries can create racially just and equitable communities through public programs and services. Amita currently serves as the co-chair for PLA’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Task Force. Contact Amita at amita.lonial@gmail.com. Amita is currently reading Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds by Adrienne Maree Brown.

“We live in a world where access to information is essential for opportunity, for learning, for success, for civic life, for checking facts. Anything that reduces that, particularly for people who can’t afford alternatives, is a body blow to the basic democratic principles that the library stands for.”—Anthony Marx, Director of the New York Public Library1

In the wake of the net neutrality repeal, now more than ever, public libraries need to rise to the challenge of engaging in digital justice work. As librarians, we know that the repeal of net neutrality hurts all of us. However, in a climate of increasing inequality and opportunity gaps, marginalized communities, especially people of color, low-income households, and rural communities, are primed to be most negatively impacted by the FCC’s egregious party-line decision.

Even more alarming are the repercussions the repeal will have on the ways in which oppressed communities have leveraged an open internet to disrupt dominant cultural narratives and organize for justice. Malkia Cyril, executive director of the Center for Media Justice asked, “What happens to the Black voters of Alabama who surely used the open internet to turn the tide in that race? Or the #MeToo movement that used the open internet to speak truth to power? The movements against police violence and for a clean Dream Act will all suffer if they don’t have a fair and unbiased platform on which to speak.”2

Access Is Not Enough

Closing the digital divide has been a long-term goal for public libraries. We have made significant strides in this area. Public libraries across the country, whether in urban or rural environments, are often a critical lifeline providing high-speed internet access. Many public library systems have begun to address how to facilitate access beyond our walls and service hours by circulating computers, tablets, and Wi-Fi hotspots. These types of innovative and vital services make impacts, big and small, on the diverse communities that libraries serve. But even as access to technology and the internet has increased over the last three decades, digital inequality persists, and is increasing in specific demographics.3 It persists because just having access to technology doesn’t level the knowledge gap that accompanies the digital divide. Access also doesn’t always lead to long-term, sustained adoption in home, school, or work life. Fundamentally, digital inequity persists because access is not enough to change the conditions and systems that have produced (and benefited from) systemic inequality in the first place, systems that leave an estimated five million school-age children in the United States without access to a broadband internet connection at home, a reality that predominantly impacts low-income households.4

In October 2017, the Connected Learning Alliance (CLA) released its report, From Good Intentions to Real Outcomes: Equity by Design in Learning Outcomes, addressing the shortcomings of education technology initiatives in K-12 schools.5 In particular the authors call out that specific initiatives, such as those focused on access through 1:1 programs, don’t take into account how dominant social and cultural forces shape outcomes. “Unintended outcomes typically grow out of two underlying social and cultural forces: institutionalized and unconscious bias and social distance between developers and those they seek to serve.”6

The goals for digital initiatives in public libraries should be grounded in equitable outcomes for the communities served, not just providing equal access. If we want to get to this point, we have to look critically at how we frame and approach our work with intentionality. One of the most fundamental aspects of adopting an equity framework is understanding that equity is both a process and an outcome.

Designing for Digital Equity and Justice

According to the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, digital equity is defined
as “a condition in which all individuals and communities have the information technology capacity needed for full participation in our society, democracy, and economy. Digital equity is necessary for civic and cultural participation, employment, lifelong learning, and access to essential services.”7

In designing a digital equity strategy, an organization should seek to address three critical areas: (1) access, (2) digital literacy, and (3) content and services. A digital equity strategy should also acknowledge and address historical barriers and define racial and social justice outcomes. Another critical element in designing for digital equity is partnering directly and co-designing initiatives and solutions with the communities and stakeholders who will benefit. By giving agency and power to marginalized communities there is an opportunity to actively address and mitigate unconscious and institutionalized biases that lead to harmful or unintentional outcomes. Lastly, design principles and approaches need to uplift the idea that diverse learners and technology users bring value, creativity, and innovation to our learning environment—we should not view these communities and populations from a deficit lens. (Examples of digital equity initiatives already underway in public libraries can be found in the resources list at the end of this column.)

Digital justice is harder to define. The Detroit Digital Justice Coalition developed an amazing platform of digital justice principles to guide their work advancing communication as a human right.8; The principles are the result of a series of interviews with residents and community organizers to describe their vision of digital justice for Detroit. The principles focus on areas of access, participation, common ownership, and healthy communities, and are useful meditations for public libraries wanting to initiate or revamp their digital equity efforts. One principle that stands out, especially in the wake of the repeal of net neutrality: “Digital justice demystifies technology to the point where we can not only use it but create our own technologies and participate in the decisions that will shape communications infrastructure.”9 (Access to their full list of principles can also be found in the resource list on the next page.)


In the coming months and years, we will likely see a growing interest in our communities accessing community-run internet networks and even developing hyper-local, alternative internet networks (such as mesh networks) in an effort to create or maintain free and open web spaces. Public librarians can and should actively harness these energies and position ourselves at the forefront of a growing movement and conversation toward digital justice. The potential impact could be powerful, for our libraries, communities, and society as a whole.

Dare to imagine a world where public libraries lead the conversation on digital justice. With an open internet under attack we know our services and approaches are increasingly and critically vital. Let’s be more vocal, imaginative, rebellious, and unapologetically bold in our quest for access, equity, and justice.

Want to engage in digital equity in your library and community? Here are some ideas to get started:

  1. Get involved with organizations working on digital justice issues. Electronic Frontier Alliance has local chapters across the country and are eager to partner with public librarians!
  2. Download the GARE Racial Equity Toolkit (see resources below) and start the conversation about how your organization can apply a racial equity tool or lens to your digital services and initiatives.
  3. Find an ally to start the conversation. This can be a community leader or partner, a colleague, or even another librarian buddy who wants to work on these issues, too.


  1. Kaitlyn Tiffany, “What Public Libraries Will Lose Without Net Neutrality,” The Verge (Dec. 14, 2017), accessed Feb. 13, 2018.
  2. Akiba Solomon, “Malkia Cyril Explains Exactly Why the Loss of Net Neutrality Matters—and What’s Next,” Colorlines (Dec. 14, 2017), accessed Feb. 13, 2018.
  3. Monica Anderson, “Digital Divide Persists Even as Lower-Income Americans Make Gains in Tech Adoption,” Pew Research Center (Mar. 22, 2017), accessed Feb. 13, 2018.
  4. John B. Horrigan, “The Numbers Behind the Broadband ‘Homework Gap’,” Pew Research Center (Apr. 20, 2015), accessed Feb. 13, 2018.
  5. Justin Reich and Mizuko Ito, From Good Intentions to Real Outcomes: Equity by Design in Learning Technologies (Irvine, CA: Digital Media and Learning Research Hub, Oct. 2017), accessed Feb. 13, 2018.
  6. Ibid., 9.
  7. National Digital Inclusion Alliance, “Definitions: Digital Equity,” n.d., accessed Feb. 13, 2018.
  8. Detroit Digital Justice Coalition, “Principles to Guide Our Work,” Allied Media Projects, n.d., accessed Feb. 13, 2018.
  9. Ibid.


Center for Media Justice

Connected Learning Alliance

Detroit Digital Justice Principles

Electronic Frontier Foundation

Government Alliance on Race and Equity—Racial Equity Toolkit

Portland Digital Equity Action Plan

Seattle Digital Equity Initiative

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