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Digital literacy is crucial for the public to understand the changes in our lives. To date, we’ve largely underplayed one widely available and publicly accessible avenue to a digitally literate public: libraries.

AI changes so quickly. In just the past year, we have ricocheted between the introduction of ChatGPT to the idea that AI could possibly destroy humanity to the recent OpenAI management drama. We have a proposal: to keep on top of AI, Canadians should turn to the hard-earned human intelligence available at … their local libraries.

Data-intensive technologies like AI in our everyday lives increasingly creates social and political imbalances. Clearly, digital literacy is crucial for the public to understand the changes in our lives. To date, we’ve largely underplayed one widely available and publicly accessible avenue to a digitally literate public: libraries. Libraries and literacy are a crucial part of a functioning democracy.

Much of what we have focused on to date is regulation, including the pending Canada’s Consumer Privacy Protection Act and the Artificial Intelligence and Data Act. But reigning in AI is not just about regulating industry. If AI has infused all of our lives, it’s high time to look at our communities for how to adapt to changes in our everyday experiences.

Libraries digital literacy campaigns more than pay for themselves. According to a recent report from the Canadian Urban Institute, public library digital literacy programs results in a sixfold community economic impact.

Libraries are the original data keepers and organizers. We know them as repositories of knowledge and information. Long before AI classifiers and recommenders, libraries and librarians were the foremost purveyors and curators of data, creating collections of human works, sorting knowledge, and making their holdings legible for the public.

Libraries are community data stewards, distributing not just books, but also access to services, space, and education in support of public literacy. Contemporary libraries are not just for published works, but also provide technology access, such as computers and 3D printers, and social necessities, such as access to municipal services, bathrooms, and public meeting spaces. They provide democratic societies with literacy skills. No wonder media theorist Shannon Mattern calls libraries social “infrastructure.”

Libraries are embedded in our digital world in three other ways.

Importantly, libraries have been at the forefront of datafication in the digital age. The City of Toronto has signed the Cities for Digital Rights Declaration, which advocates for digital privacy, digital inclusivity, and digital literacy. The Toronto Public Library (TPL) incorporated digital literacy into its 2020-2024 Strategic Plan, which includes broadening digital access and inclusion.

TPL has developed digital literacy programs in emerging technologies that cover the basics of AI, introduce the concept of smart city applications, and offer digital privacy classes that promote online security and data protection. TPL offers speaker series and forms partnerships with external partners to raise public awareness of digital issues, such as the recent Digital Expo.

Furthermore, libraries serve digital public interests. As articulated in the American Library Association code of ethics, libraries protect public interest while providing access to information sources generated from a multitude of sources: corporate, non-profit, government and individual.

Libraries manage data ownership and how it can support citizens and be wielded against them. For instance, libraries have sought protections for patrons against invasive legislation such as the Patriot Act. They have actively resisted efforts by U.S. agencies to surveil users of leading databases produced by Thomson Reuters and RELX. The Canadian Association of Research Libraries has lobbied for rights-based data governance.

Finally, libraries organize what we know, and how we know it. Libraries improve access to information through robust metadata projects to “recode” holdings into useful descriptors. University libraries help researchers organize data for the long-term.

They advocate for access to for-profit collections of work. If not libraries, then where in society can timely, equity-informed interventions be made across the demographic landscape to equip citizens to understand and contend with data-intensive technologies like AI?

In a word, libraries are resilient. Their resilience provides both a beacon and a refuge in the digital age. As technologies evolve so do public libraries. They continue to empower and educate our communities, modelling what it means to be a digital citizen.

Libraries and librarians must embrace their critical role in the digital, democratic transformation. Policymakers need to see libraries as part of their solutions for creating a digitally-informed public, recognizing librarians’ expertise in data management and curation, and the community trust that libraries foster.


Autor(en)/Author(s): Fiona O’Connor, Barbara Sobol, Wendy H. Wong

Quelle/Source: Toronto Star, 30.12.2023

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