This is the first part of a two-part interview conducted with Gina Millsap, retired Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library (TSCPL) CEO and a longtime advocate of broadband access for work and learning. An article drawn from the interview is available on the ShapingEDU blog.
Our friend Maurice Coleman [a keynote speaker, trainer, and facilitator who also serves as host for the T is for Training podcast] has said that advocates and activists don’t necessarily “start out wanting to change the world. They usually start out wanting to change this…that one situation.” What was that “one situation” that first drew you to efforts to support universal broadband access and access to the tools needed to effectively use the Internet for work and learning?”
It actually started for me in the early 1990s, when I had the opportunity to work on the COIN (Columbia (MO) Online Information Network) project. It was the first ISP in the state of Missouri and was a collaboration of the University of Missouri, the City of Columbia, Boone County, the local school district, and the library I worked for—the Daniel Boone Regional Library. I was head of computer services for the library and also became the head of technical and end-user support for COIN because my library had the management contract for it. I saw, very early on, the power of shared online communication and information with community networking and what it could mean for public libraries, local government, and the community. Later, we included small private telephone companies who were often willing to let us locate modem pools in their facilities and whose owners could see the potential of the Internet before the big service providers figured out how to make money on it.
Can you tell a story that shows how lack of broadband access or lack of access to the tools needed to effectively use the Internet for work and learning made this personal for you or someone close to you?
When libraries first introduced access to computers and then to the Internet, it became clear that there was and would be a huge divide in our communities and in this country—those who had access to technology and those who didn’t. The phrase “digital divide” is pretty hackneyed now, but when I saw how many people engaged with the library for the first time, it was an epiphany for me. I still remember a gentleman in his eighties—Mr. Belcher. His son lived and worked in Japan, but he was seldom able to connect with him because long distance calls were so expensive. When COIN went live, he was one of the first people to sign up. He had a Radio Shack computer with a 300 baud modem. He would call me with updates on how he could communicate via email on a daily basis with his son. It literally changed his life.
Also, when I realized that no matter how many computers we installed in libraries, in the ‘90s and early 2000s, it wasn’t going to be enough, especially when PCs were so expensive and complicated. So it wasn’t just one story, it was how people saw this, wanted it, and ultimately needed it. It also continued and strengthened the equity work of public libraries. One of the reasons I’ve worked on broadband planning and advocacy so much in the past few years is a concern that libraries have inadvertently contributed to the digital inequity with the investments we make in digital content that isn’t available to those who aren’t digitally literate or who can’t afford the equipment or broadband services. The pandemic put a harsh spotlight on how flawed our systems are and how inequitable they are.
That raises an immediate question: what are some of those flaws and inequalities?
From my perspective, the flaws are attributable to the fact that local governments (and many states) haven’t owned this issue. Most of them have left it to the providers, whose business plans don’t align with all community needs. So, the gaps caused by where you live, how much money you have, how technologically adept you are keep getting bigger. I think internet should probably be regulated like a utility and the goal should be universal access.
Public libraries tend to be gap fillers. By that, I mean that needs like access to devices and broadband, have been left to that one institution while it should be a goal for all residents. There’s also a huge need for technology literacy. Even students who have grown up with computers aren’t necessarily information literate. We’ve focused so much on the technology that we’ve neglected what should accompany the use of these tools—critical-thinking skills, civic engagement, and understanding of what it means to participate in a democracy. The tools have become the endgame instead of a means to an end.
There also needs to be more action at the federal level—and I don’t mean just throwing more money at the big legacy providers who own all the fiber networks.
How can we work together to overcome the flaws and inequalities you’re noting here?
Planning and evaluation of the quality of services should be community-based. People need to be viewed as more than consumers. Part of our job as citizens is to participate in our communities, our country. To do that effectively, you need equitable access to the tools. So part of it is reframing this discussion to talk about investing in ourselves and our democracy instead of just upgrading to the latest Apple watch or Samsung phone.
N.B. — Paul is one of three Storytellers in Residence for ShapingEDU (July 2020-June 2021).