SALT LAKE CITY — To address a growing digital divide, the Salt Lake City Public Library has started a first-of-its-kind program to assist residents trying to access and navigate the internet from home.

Its “digital navigators” began last week, and people can now call the library’s main number, 801-524-8200, to receive technological help, digital literacy training and access to resources that allow them to use the internet remotely.

“(This is a) response is to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Shauna Edson, the library’s digital inclusion coordinator. “Face-to-face training classes, public-access computer labs, walk-in support services have all been shut down throughout Salt Lake City. So this model is going to explore the best ways to re-create that digital inclusion work in a remote setting.”

The library is working with the University Neighborhood Partners, Suazo Business Center and Catholic Community Services to provide widespread coverage through the program. Each of the organizations has one full-time digital navigator to complement the library’s three part-time employees.

Residents are encouraged to call the digital navigators with myriad requests, from help accessing health care and banking to learning how to best help kids who are attending school online.

With an increasing number of services moving online during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is more important than ever that people know how to access online resources, Edson said.

When someone calls in, they first talk to an operator who fills out a short intake form with information about the resident.

The project manager then reviews the intake form and matches the individual with the digital navigator best suited to help them.

“We looked for folks that have experience working in diverse groups and with diverse community members as well as lived experiences around access to technology,” Edson said. “We’ve also looked for folks that have worked in public computer labs or have experience helping community members interact (with) and use technology. It’s really about being able to help somebody access the resources that they need to move forward than having a Big Tech background.”

Three of the navigators are fluent in Spanish as well, she added.

One of Salt Lake City Public Library’s digital navigators helps someone solve a technological problem over the phone on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020.

One of Salt Lake City Public Library’s digital navigators helps someone solve a technological problem over the phone on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020.
Salt Lake City Public Library

The program is targeting people living in parts of Salt Lake City that are experiencing the deepest digital divides and have the highest COVID-19 rates, specifically the Glendale, Poplar Grove and Rose Park areas.

According to five-year estimates from the U.S. census, approximately 5.6{3c6be4297db6c6dead22aac82e61edad92a520b73a55778b8446ff6b78406501} of Utah households did not have computers from 2014-18, and 14.3{3c6be4297db6c6dead22aac82e61edad92a520b73a55778b8446ff6b78406501} of households did not have broadband internet connection.

The digital divide has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, with people working remotely and many students transferring to online classes.

“The city library recognizes the life changing significance of access to digital resources. A home internet connection opens up so many possibilities that some might take for granted: online health care, banking, applying for jobs, remote learning, communicating with friends and family, just to name a few,” Edson said in a news release.

In addition to the digital literacy training and technological help, the library has 100 new Wi-Fi hot spots that it hopes to provide patrons.

It will also be distributing 50 Wi-Fi-enabled tablets, 200 Chromebooks and 200 internet essentials sponsorships for six months of service to residents who are in need of technological implements.

Edson noted that to qualify for some of these devices, people must fit certain requirements such as income restriction guidelines.

The library hopes the broader program will be replicated by community-based organizations across the U.S., and it is currently working with several organizations to share its model.

The Digital Navigators program is funded by a $411,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and will run through July 2021.