The realities of the digital divide in New Zealand are being played out daily in the country’s public libraries.
“Every day, our librarians help people get their first email account so they can take advantage of online government and commercial services,” says Dr Greg Morgan, head of digital solutions and innovation at Auckland Libraries.
For Morgan, this highlights another chasm in the digitalisation of society.
“Over the years, more and more people have been able to use digital technology and go online. As the divide has narrowed for many people, it has widened for others,” he says. “These are people who don’t have confidence using computers or access to good technology.”
“We often talk about information literacy which is the ability to locate, evaluate and use information. But some of the barriers to information literacy are very basic, maybe access to a PC or laptop.”
He cites a common example faced by people who he says are at an ‘information disadvantage’. Online services provide FAQs (frequently asked questions) and other help, but people unfamiliar with transacting online often cannot benefit from this self-service assistance.
Over the years, more and more people have been able to use digital technology and go online. As the divide has narrowed for many people, it has widened for othersDr Greg Morgan, Auckland Libraries
These are some insights Morgan aims to bring as a member of the Digital Economy and Digital Inclusion Advisory Group. The 15-member group will advise the government on how it can build the digital economy and reduce digital divides.
“What I offer is a mindset around inclusiveness. There should be the widest possible participation in the digital economy and a broader understanding of its value to our nation in a globalised world.”
“And this inclusiveness is for people across the age spectrum and cultures,” he says.
Morgan has been applying this perspective throughout his career. His current job at Auckland Libraries is about enabling Aucklanders to access digital content around-the-clock, wherever they are.
“Librarians care about the exchange of ideas, identity and experience. My job is to ensure Auckland’s communities have access to systems, maker opportunities and technology that support them to develop and share their ideas and knowledge. As the range of platforms and content grows, we are increasingly focused on the user experience and the easy discoverability of so much content.”
Morgan has held leadership roles in tertiary and public libraries and in community development and the voluntary sector.
He initially wanted to be a teacher and completed his undergraduate and masters training in English and history at the University of Auckland. He received a postgraduate scholarship and in 1990 completed his PhD in English. For his thesis he edited a selection of sermons written in 14th century English, analysing their language and how they would have sounded.
Into the world of information: Dr Greg Morgan says the design of the carpet at the Central City Library features the navigational sticks used by the early Polynesian settlers to New Zealand (Photo by Divina Paredes).
His first library job at the University of Auckland further fuelled his interest in learning and discovery.
“When I was working at the law library, I became interested in social issues around the law and worked with students and researchers exploring them,” he says.
He then managed the university’s medical and health sciences library, overseeing information services to academics, medical students and clinicians. Through distance education he completed a diploma in library and information studies at the Victoria University of Wellington.
Morgan says his approach to librarianship was shaped by being part of the university community in which researchers were working alongside people learning and growing into their chosen discipline.
Morgan worked at the University of Auckland Library through the 1990s and, in 2000, he joined the Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind as national manager of the talking book and braille library. He twice served on the foundation’s governance board and is an associate member of Blind Citizens NZ’s Auckland branch.
He says working for the Blind Foundation nurtured his commitment to a more inclusive society.
“It taught me a lot about the information divide, that so much public information and social knowledge in our country is not in a format accessible to people who cannot read standard print.”
He notes that the foundation’s membership has always included a large number of older people who have acquired vision impairment or blindness. “To function as citizens, blind people of any age require access to a broad range of society’s publicly available information.”
“Information has many forms, many of them easily unnoticed. If we look around, we see text in newspapers and flyers and on signs. We take it in almost unthinkingly. Not everyone can do that.”
“An equitable society demands a mindset that brings more people into being able to utilise public information in the widest possible sense,” he says.
When Morgan left the Blind Foundation, he became lifelong learning manager at what was then Auckland City Libraries.
Joining a large public library network further nurtured his sense of community and appreciation of diversity. “A public library is there for everyone – no matter their interests, whatever their social niche.”
“People’s sharing of ideas and culture has always been a point of interest for me,” he says.
“This role focused on informal learning opportunities for people across the age spectrum,” he says.
Programme participants ranged from children to students in middle school, adult literacy students, people new to the English language and older people.
An equitable society demands a mindset that brings more people into being able to utilise public information in the widest possible sense
“Libraries are great community spaces in a couple of senses,” he says. “They are accessible places in the community, and they are somewhere people visit to build community. If you look around, you’ll see a variety of activities going on.
“Some people bring their laptop, sit there and choose to do their individual work in a public place. Sure, we provide wifi but it’s also that they want to be in a public space. The library as a community space is the physical setting for many people’s digital experiences,” he says.
He says Auckland Libraries is still in a growth phase when it comes to use of e-content. Currently 15 per cent of the loans across the Auckland libraries are e-books, and the percentage is growing. The Auckland Libraries system has 280,000 e-books for loan and 850 e-magazine titles.
“For many people, it is a matter of choice. They choose to read either a physical book or e-book, sometimes according to genre. Some have made the transition to e-only. Others do not want to read an e-book. Individuals decide differently about ease of use,” he says.
“Our focus for many years was making things accessible physically, and then accessing the content digitally. We still do those things. However, our future is the context of content and helping people understand where it is coming from and how to assess its reliability.”
He says libraries around the world help people understand the social context of information. For instance, Auckland Libraries has a significant heritage collection. “We preserve content that is unique and a treasured part of Auckland’s rich history.”
“Many libraries internationally are interested in the debate around the reliability of news and also in the widespread concern that societies are becoming more polarised, locked into black or white views,” he says.
“Libraries are spaces which can promote dialogue and encourage multiple perspectives,” he says.
“Really important questions for our lives in the digital world are how do we retain the essence of what it means to be human and how can we stay connected within communities? How must technology assist us to live well connected lives, share viewpoints and support the cultures that nurture and enrich us?”
Morgan and his team work in partnership with the ICT department of the Auckland Council and are ‘business owners’ of the vision while their technology colleagues help bring that vision to life.
His unit comprises two teams. A digital acceleration team works on increasing digital services and capability across the library network, including use of self-service options. The digital experiences and design team focuses on the user experience and content across the library’s online channels.
He says that librarians over the years have always had to counter assumptions that librarians read all day.
“The job of librarians is much more about people, society and the information management that adds value for them.”
Librarians have an innate respect for ideas, culture and social identity, he says. “They need to like people and learn how they think; understand how communities express themselves.”
“Libraries are all about trust,” he says. “We know that members of the public really trust libraries. They come to us for assistance with their questions and information.”
Focusing on the user experience is essential, he says. Auckland Libraries seek to be responsive to the realities of a growing and increasingly diverse Auckland.
“Our libraries across the network reflect points of difference and speciality according to the local community. We are making more use of co-design methodologies and think about user experience in a way that does not stereotype the communities of Auckland.
Pt England Primary School students at an OMGTech! workshop
“We want to gain a real understanding of the motivations people have when they are seeking information and using their library,” he says.
“We also think about the journey they have in getting to information. We have a duty to focus on M?ori knowledge and promote the use of te reo M?ori. We believe that to be successful, Auckland’s library service must meet the expectations of M?ori.”
He also says the library is active in supporting other community languages. For example, the libraries have vibrant programmes to mark Pacific language weeks and regularly hold story times in Chinese, Arabic and other languages. Across the library network there are specialist M?ori, Pacific focused, ethnic communities and community engagement roles.
Morgan says the library sector is very collaborative. “We share research and insights across the sector and with the wider gallery, museum and cultural sectors.”
When he travels, Morgan makes sure he looks beyond library systems.
He observes how museums curate collections and exhibitions. He visits technology stores and other public places; anywhere where people are increasingly using their devices.
“I look at the space and how design attracts people and maintains their interest,” he says.
“In technology stores, retail spaces and civic places I watch the interactions of people and groups, thinking about what attracts people to these places and who they are or are not. There is always something to learn and bring back to our very people-centred service,” he says.
“I do have a cool job.”