Marion, the Librarian (queering information access and digital inequality in the rural U.S.)
This week, I had the pleasure of playing with social media researcher (and fellow youth culture rabble rouser) danah boyd at the Microsoft Research (http://research NULL.microsoft NULL.com/en-us/people/dmb/) campus in Cambridge, MA. I also gave a talk at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society that gave me a chance to gush about librarians–and say gay and Internet policy in the same breath– something I’ve been meaning to do for years now!
You see, one of my favorite stories that didn’t make it into the book was the experience of a group of youth whose world changed the day their local public librarian decided to reposition the two Internet-accessible public terminals so that passers-by could not easily see patrons’ surfing. Many of us who enjoy the comfort and privacy of zippy home broadband access might think “so what?…they’re still in a public space, right?” But, for rural LGBT and questioning young people with no personal access to a home PC, living in communities still dependent on dial-up service, and facing the hurdles of draconian filtering and monitoring software on all their school computers, the public library’s computers became the primary “private” gateway for their queer explorations. I’m working on a more “academeze” version of this story but the upshot is this: Like policy analysts Paul DiMaggio and Eszter Hargittai argued back in 2001, information access is SOOO much more than whether a computer and the net are present or absent (what some folks in the biz call “media penetration” or “domestication”–an unfortunate choice of terms, I know). The divide between digital “haves” and “have-nots” involves a complicated set of conditions way beyond securing hardware. That public librarian in rural Eastern Kentucky addressed what DiMaggio and Hargittai called “digital inequality”–queer young people’s direct access to not just the equipment to browse but the social possibilities for their autonomous use and social validation to use the computers for something more than term papers.
Because I heard the story of the librarian’s cool move from the youth themselves somewhat after the fact, I never had the chance to go back and ask the library if they knew what a difference they were making for these young people (and if they did, would they be as happy about?)…But now’s my chance to dive back into the details of digital inequality in the rural U.S. and the strategies young people use to workaround and re-purpose the constrained access they have to rebuild their own senses of public-ness and queer visibility.