Tammy Westergard: Bridging the Digital Divide with Libraries and Upskilling

With the world accelerating toward a new digital future, public libraries are becoming more important than ever. In an interview with Anna Zamejc, American librarian Tammy Westergard explains how libraries can foster the culture of lifelong learning and help people level up their skills.

Are public libraries still relevant in the digital age?

Absolutely. Public libraries are part of the public space, just like parks and other places. We are not sent there, it is specifically a place where we all belong and a cornerstone of democracy. In the digital age, public libraries are more important than ever because they provide opportunities to bridge the digital divide. 

When we go to the library, we see people using digital tools and we can just watch them from a distance to get some level of comfort and then we can try ourselves. In fact, we first learn to read and then we read to learn for the rest of our lives. Especially with technology, it’s a moving target all the time. Our industry 4.0 has just accelerated the requirements for digital literacy, just as a part of everyday life.

So how is technology changing the ways libraries operate today?

We don’t typically check our books out from the librarian anymore with the help of a card in the inside of the book jacket. We take items from the library using self-checkout. Libraries are in fact adjusting in the exact same ways as work and home environments do: by embracing technology and automation in order to gain efficiency. 

There are conveyor bells and robots that help sort books and get them back on the shelves as that kind of human labor can be more efficiently and productively done with machines. 

And the other role of libraries is not necessarily to be a passive place for people to go to in order to access information, books, pictures or audio files. Today, libraries are also a place where people go to learn as they help facilitate life-long learning and provide training in terms of gaining marketable skills.

Finally, libraries are also leveraging technology, by using virtual reality tools and 3-D printing. All of these things can be found in the library and are a normal part of operations.

The role of public libraries in the twenty-first century is clearly evolving, yet many people still perceive them in a traditional way as a place to check out books and find a quiet area to read. So how to break those stereotypes and how can modern libraries reach out to the skeptics and best engage the entire communities?

Libraries can also play a huge role in civil society as a place where we can convene and learn from each other, have conversations within the neutral space of a library. I think one of the reasons that libraries are so important is that we all belong there. 

One of the challenges in our societies is to meet people where they are. People who come to a library have an information-seeking need and so it is the right place and the right time for them. So maybe the question is different, maybe it is how do we share the good news about what is available at the library so that others who are not coming to the library are inspired to do so as well? That antiquated notion that a library is some kind of a dusty book circulator has to be dispelled.

We all understand that the digital world is now everywhere. If we compare bridging the digital gap to achieving literacy, the library is an obvious answer—that’s the place to go to develop those digital skills.

What are then the leading examples of modern-day public libraries in the US and what makes them truly unique?

I think it’s the librarians themselves and the leadership that is coming out of a library. Because not every community has the resources to have a fancy building. It’s also all the libraries that are really trying to meet the needs of their communities. And in the digital age, those that bring tools to partnering schools and classrooms. 

Oftentimes, school libraries are very underfunded, especially in the United States. The public libraries typically have more resources than school libraries do, so it becomes an area of focus for the public library to know exactly what the classroom needs are within the schools that the community serves and help the teachers get opportunities to learn how to work with different technologies.

In Nevada, we actually launched a pilot project using virtual reality tools. I made a call to public libraries that wanted to be a part of an early program and the only requirement was that they would find science teachers within their jurisdiction to take this content into the classroom and help advance a specific learning goal. The librarians would then create those relationships. And that’s exactly what they did, they connected with the teachers, they found out where they were at within their lesson plans. It was a tremendous success. And that was just a small pilot program in Nevada. California did the same thing in over a hundred libraries, taking it out into the community. 

Beyond collaborating with schools, who else do modern libraries work with?

Libraries really work with any member of the community. The library in Písek, which opened a few years ago, provides an excellent example. It’s based in a five-floor retrofit building, it has an observatory on the roof and a kitchen where the community is invited to hold multicultural groups, talk about food and cook together. There are instructional classrooms in the library (using VR goggles), there are youth services and preschool activities. 

So, the actual partner is everyone in the community that wants to use the facilities. And one of the things that is great about having it organized in a library is that the librarians are not necessarily the subject matter experts in the instruction. It is the community partners that are stepping in, sharing their messages, achieving their goals – all under the umbrella of the library.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed your work? With social distancing and lockdowns, it was no longer possible to focus on physical gatherings and interactions.

At the end of the day, the Internet is vast and it is dark. And so libraries are really like the lighthouse of the Internet. When people are lost and looking for things online, your instinct is to try and find the library online.

And all the libraries in the US and here in the Czech Republic have digital versions of themselves. So you can get electronic cards and you are able to access the data bases. One of the ways the libraries in Nevada and elsewhere pivoted to serve families and their children was offering online story times through Zoom. Libraries were putting up their new digital programming and engaged with communities in real time. Then they would record their sessions and put them up on Zoom. So, in other words, we met people where they were online. We would also make books available and people could come by into the parking lots and pick their things up. We did in a hybrid way just like the rest of the business world.

What kind of projects are you currently working on?

I am focused on administering large portions of a 13.8 million USD grant the State of Nevada was awarded through the US Department of Education. There is 5.3 million USD that are large library pieces of this 13.8 million USD grant. And essentially, what it is doing is leveraging a career information database that is in the state of Nevada and all the libraries within the state have access to it. I like to call it a match.com for job seekers and employers. 

This database is licensed to all the public libraries in the state of Nevada. So what that means is that every Nevadan has access to that service where they can create an account, explore various career options, and find ones that may match their interest and skills. Then, the system will help identify where learning gaps are and from there recommend training programs which could be achieved in weeks, not years. 

So, when individuals find their way into those training programs which can be completed in a short period of time, these become quick and vast doors into upskilling and getting back to work. Often times into a whole new career. 

The need for that kind of literacy for individuals to be able to understand the labor market is really vast. 

Because it is hard to understand, it is hard to keep pace with change, relative to what skills and abilities industries really do need right now. And as libraries kind of step into that space, I think that’s going to create at least some sense of an opportunity to understand what skills you need to continue to sharpen as an individual so that you are not going to be replaced by the robots.

Because that’s the myth that robots are going to take all of our jobs.

But the McKinsey Institute said in February this year that some 45 million Americans would lose their jobs by 2030, an increase of 6 million compared to its previous estimate of 2017. So maybe we should be afraid of robots at the end of the day?

No, because what it means is that there will be different kinds of jobs. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t work. There is plenty of work to do. But we have to learn that our co-workers are co-bots. And in many ways, if you think about it, it’s Thomas Friedman, the New York Times reporter, who described it best. He talked about the convergence of globalization, climate crisis and technology change as these large rivers that cover the whole planet are converging, becoming wider and deeper. So the opportunity is to learn to navigate that wide water and to move over it faster. At the end of the day, using machines and using technology help us do that. We don’t want to think of it as artificial intelligence, we think of it as an intelligent assistant. So instead of AI it is IA. And as intelligent assistance that is the hallmark of digital literacy and of being able to recognize that the job that I had was just an inefficient way to get the task at hand complete. Now I – as the worker – have to continue to upskill and I have to see how I am going to use an intelligent assistant in order to advance the bottom line of the business and also to solve problems.

The Internet of things is driving connectivity globally, so it is really allowing business to operate much more efficiently, much more cooperatively and in ways that are going to tread lighter on the planet. Especially with things like 3d printing so that you can print things from sustainable materials just in time and reduce warehousing costs. Or how smart sensors when they are connected to an entire system can measure productive maintenance so that the machinery within things lasts longer. There are a lot of ways the jobs of the past are just being reinvented into the jobs of the future.

But as you mentioned, that requires constant learning. It all sounds great at the systemic level, but for an average individual who may not have the time, the energy and motivation to continue learning all their life, what can be done? Is unemployment inevitable for people who are not able to keep pace with technological change?

We don’t want to fear technology. In fact, it is the thing that is going to help us solve problems and to live efficiently and sustainably in this world. I honestly think that one of the ways it can be done is for employers to embrace the library as the center of life-long learning. 

When employers work with libraries to help the librarians shape the collection and the kinds of information that are available to the community, then they all become part of an ecosystem. 

Businesses do not operate in a vacuum. What is business? It’s solving a problem or meeting some kinds of needs. So when the business sector wants to make itself understood to the community and the community members have an understanding of what the labor market is and what their role is within those opportunities and that system, then it all becomes like a bicycle gear and works together. 

Instead of seeing the library as this sort of antiquated, old, nice to have thing, it is actually a have to have. 

For younger people, it may be easier to replace new technologies and fit into these new dynamics because they are growing up with fast-changing modern, innovative tools. What about the elderly, older people, how could libraries, as a middle-man between the communities and business, help people overcome this fear of technology?

That’s a great question and libraries do this all the time by making technology available to the public. It does go back to the role of the leadership within the libraries and the library professionals that are working there. 

When the Internet first appeared in mainstream society, it was libraries that had computers where people could set up e-mail accounts. And there was plenty of pushback at the time from some librarians who basically said what do you think we are? Some post office? It didn’t make sense to them why people would set up e-mails in their libraries. The point of that is to think about how long ago it was. 

Now you cannot find libraries without computers. Libraries are distributed throughout the world and the network is dense. In fact, I’ve recently learned that the Czech Republic has the densest network of libraries of any country in the world. 

When you think about that, all those libraries have roofs, they have bathrooms, doors, chairs, computers and Internet connectivity. That right there is a quantum leap in terms of distributing what opportunities are everywhere. So libraries have not only been an access point to the Internet, but we also bring technology to the forefront and we make it available for people to use it. As I said before, whether it is teachers who don’t have the same resources within their schools—they can come to the library and the librarians empower them, or adults can come to the library just to get a sense of what it is all about. And that was actually the big area of focus using virtual reality tools in three states in the US: California, Nevada, and the state of Washington.

How could governments best support public libraries? What advice would you offer to policymakers to make libraries a truly engaging public place?

One of the most exciting things I’ve learned is that in the Czech Republic there was a memorandum of understanding between the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Education to have libraries be a part of instructional training, an education site, and not so focused just on cultural activities. It’s going to be a really key opportunity because I think it will unlock funds from the EU that are also focused on that. 

In the US, we have the Institute of Museum and Library Services that is the federal arm of libraries. There is funding allocated to each of the fifty states based on the population formula and it goes through the state libraries which makes it accessible either in state-wide programs or competitive grant opportunities for libraries. 

A similar model could be followed here in the Czech Republic. Allowing the upskilling and the re-training dollars that might be funneled through the Labor Office to make their ways into libraries could make a real difference. I’ve recently learned that the library of Písek was contacted by the local Labor Office to reserve some of the instructional space for about 80 hours a month to do that thing in IT. In other words, it looks like some of this is already making its way through the ecosystem here in the Czech Republic. Putting together further programs that actually facilitate a similar partnership will ignite what is already going on.

What skills, beyond keeping pace with innovative changes, will be needed in the future job markets and how could libraries help harness them?

Most librarians think about skills in the framework of literacy which includes numbers, science, digital literacy, financial literacy, and cultural and civic literacy. They all form twenty-first century skills that will help the employers with the bottom line. There are various competencies that fall underneath those things, like computational thinking, understanding the Internet of Things, and how to problem-solve.

What do you envision libraries will look like in five years’ time? What will be their key mission?

My definite answer is the mission of libraries will remain the same. When you think about the great library of Alexandria, it was the center of knowledge and this is not going to change. The fact that libraries are a safe, trusted place to go will not change either. And that in itself is good news.

As we continue to wrestle with our challenges, the library is the human organism, it is the heart. People will count on the library to continue its role in making information accessible to everybody. So in five years’ time, my hope is that with regards to this myth of robots taking over the world, the libraries will continue helping individuals understand what their role is on the labor markets, helping identify and bridging the skills gap.

But we do need funding. When librarians go to the city council meetings to defend their budget, everyone is competing for money. And sometimes firefighters will say to the mayor, well, if your house is on fire, Mr. or Ms. Mayor, who do you want to show up, the librarian or the firefighter? Well, the librarian can now say, when your democracy is on fire, who do you want to show up? The firefighter or the librarian? It’s the access to information, the access to opportunity and the belief that we can solve the problems that are going to cool this flame that is currently overtaking the world.

Tammy Westergard

is a professional librarian in Nevada with the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. Her passion is to help people get better jobs with real wage growth and she believes there’s no better place to do that than in libraries. She has previously served as an administrator of the Nevada State Library, Archives and Public Records Division.

Since becoming a librarian, she has launched the first-in-the-country programs in libraries to help people level up their skills for free and take their place in the twenty-first century economy. Library Journal named Westergard a Mover and Shaker for bringing advanced manufacturing training to the public library and in 2020, the Nevada Library Association named Tammy Westergard, Librarian of the Year.

Anna Zamejc

Anna is a freelance journalist and advocacy specialist. She was a 2013 Fulbright and International Peace Scholarship recipient, which allowed her to complete a Master’s degree in Peace and Justice Studies at the University of San Diego, California. Anna has worked as a correspondent with the Azerbaijani Service of Radio Free Europe and has contributed to various other media outlets. As a freelance journalist, she concentrates on the post-Soviet space and conflict reporting. Since 2014, Anna has been working with a Czech NGO People in Need. In 2017, she won a Tom Lantos fellowship at the U.S. Congress and spent several months working for the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. On a more personal note, Anna is an avid beach volleyball player and loves riding hoverboards.

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