Library's cyber-navigators help digitally illiterate patrons access social services

June 13, 2012

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Charlie Brown is a cheery older man, who carries around a huge bag overflowing with papers. Like many people his age, he relies on social services for housing and health care.

But lately he’s noticed a trend when at social service offices—they are short staffed and send him online for information or to fill out a form. It’s been a challenge for Brown, who describes himself as “computer illiterate.”

So once a week he goes to Harold Washington Library to meet with Zach McMahon, a cyber navigator. A cyber navigator’s central job is to help people learn to use computers. But Zach Mahon says that much of what they do is help people access government services or find a job. In a way, the cyber navigators are almost like digital social workers.

“I use [the cyber navigators] about once a week to find what’s available to senior citizens such as food pantry, clothing or housing assistance,” says Brown.There are 45 part-time cyber navigators at different Chicago Public Libraries. The program is unique to Chicago, though, according the American Library Association, most libraries have noticed an increased number of request to help access social services online.

Harold Washington library in downtown Chicago is near a Federal Immigration Office.
 
McMahon says they send him a lot of referrals. Last year, the send him an Italian man who had lost his green card but wanted to travel home for his brother funeral. In order to leave the country, he had to fill out an 1-90 form.
 
“The immigration office hadn’t
sent him over with a note on his shirt saying this is what I need.” said McMahon. “Unfortunately we spent the first 15 minutes just trying to figure how what this gentleman needed to do. So I sat down with him, he had never used a computer before and when he went to grab the mouse he picked it up and raised it over his head.

Eventually they were able to fill out the form and the man when home for his brother’s funeral.

According the American Library Association, over half of libraries say helping patrons’ access government information is one of the most critical services they provide. But not everyone gets the help they need.

Aaron Smith is with Pew Internet and American Life project. He says one in five Americans doesn’t go online at all. They include people who access many government services. “They tend to be older, they tend to have low levels of income, low levels of education, people with a chronic health condition or some sort of disability, and low language proficiency,” says Smith.

So far, most essential government forms are still available in hard copy. But some are only available by mail order, and are processed much quicker online.

As for Mr. Charlie Brown, he says will visit the cyber-navigators next week, “Without these services, I’d be on the verge of homelessness. So I’d be sleeping under the bridge with the rest of the guys.”