What Practitioners Learned by Reassessing Our Tools for Outreach During the Pandemic

The effort to find creative solutions to reach our under-connected, undercounted, underrepresented, and underserved neighbors, especially children, families, and seniors, during a global pandemic can inspire changes in the way we work. This time in which we live is issuing a challenge to us— to reach into the digital divide as much as we hope to reach across it.

“Internet infrastructure is, of course, an essential element of the divide, but infrastructure alone does not necessarily translate into adoption and beneficial use. Local and national institutions, affordability and access, and the digital proficiency of users, all play significant roles — and there are wide variations across the United States along each of these.” —Bhaskar Chakravorti, Harvard Business Review 

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Nothing has illuminated the challenges of digital inequality more than the quick pivot to online learning during the pandemic shutdown. Images of school children doing their homework in the parking lots of fast-food restaurants with free wifi brought the issue of digital poverty into a larger conversation for parents, the general public, and politicians everywhere. In September 2020, the Pew Research center published a report stating that 59% of U.S. parents with lower incomes say that their child may be facing digital obstacles in schoolwork. Common Sense Media developed Teaching Through the Digital Divide, a tool that highlights statistics and educators’ stories around digital equity issues around the country.

Mobile data limits are a common barrier to access. How do we help families access engaging content if they don’t have broadband access at home? Educators, librarians, caregivers, and advocates sought analog spaces to make safe connections as their facilities closed their doors. They stocked sidewalk lending libraries with fresh material, aligned bookmobiles with free-lunch distribution sites, and produced story walks around their sites and in public parks. They also used widely available, low-cost digital tools to produce video storytimes and other engaging programming to post online, shared podcast recommendations for parents seeking less screen time, and implemented, re-implemented, or refreshed services that use digital tools to provide analog services like radio storytimes and dial-a-story.

As the national conversation around digital equity continued to expand, outreach practitioners discovered new and rewarding ways that community members were engaging with their content. Librarians at the Kansas City Public Library were surprised to find that a power outage and a glitch one weekend made it possible for patrons to leave almost 400 voice messages to their dial-a-story recordings. “Children said, ‘I really like this.’ You could hear Spanish television in the background or sometimes the voice of a senior citizen,” said children’s librarian Nancy Stegeman in The Pitch KC. “It’s not just children—people are using it to help their English.”

As an audio content creator passionate about reading stories to kids and fostering access, I also searched for and found ways to increase analog access to our podcast for kids through telephone dial-up. “Thank you for doing that, because we don’t have unlimited data, and now C. can listen on the bus,” a parent from my son’s school told me.  And, as a contract librarian, I worked on developing a catalog of stories for a digitally managed, low-cost dial-a-story service. In both instances, we used new technology to improve and deliver analog solutions.

Practitioners are reaching in and across the divide by reassessing and developing our emerging digital and traditional analog toolkits, working as a community together on creative strategies, and always looking for more ways to bring stories to the people, especially those experiencing barriers to access (digital or otherwise.) For every neighbor, there is a story—to be heard and to be shared, where they are now.


Phoebe OwensPhoebe Owens was the head librarian/archivist for the global creative ad agency Weiden+Kennedy for 10 years and is now a freelance librarian/archivist, writer, branding and social media lead for Kids Listen, and a kids & families podcaster living in Portland, Oregon. She also worked to develop content and strategy for a dial-a-story service in 2020.

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