The ALA/FCC/Digital Corps Debacle

In the FCC/ALA/Digital Corps debacle unfolds before my very eyes, allow me to sum up as quickly as I can before I make my points.

A couple of weeks ago the New York Times wrote an article called Wasting Time is New Divide in Digital Era. The quote that caused a thousand tweets to sail:

The new divide is such a cause of concern for the Federal Communications Commission that it is considering a proposal to spend $200 million to create a digital literacy corps. This group of hundreds, even thousands, of trainers would fan out to schools and libraries to teach productive uses of computers for parents, students and job seekers.

Separately, the commission will help send digital literacy trainers this fall to organizations like the Boys & Girls Clubs, the League of United Latin American Citizens, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Some of the financial support for this program, part of a broader initiative called Connect2Compete, comes from private companies like Best Buy and Microsoft.

This was seen as an affront to Fran Bullington who wrote a blog post entitled, “Calling School Librarians to Action! Another Attempt to Undermine Our Jobs”. Pull quotes:

Chairman Julius Genachowski was quoted in the article.  He recognizes the importance of digital literacy, but he is ill-informed. He does not know that there are already trained professionals in many schools who work, against great odds at times, to train our students and who volunteer to teach parents these skills.


Although I applaud the intent of teaching digital literacy skills to our students, I question the expenditure of these funds.  Why not instead funnel these funds into school library programs to allow trained, certified professionals to teach the skills?

Joyce Valenza reposted Fran’s post to her blog on School Library Journal. The outrage expands and people are encouraged to contact the FCC about this issue. Fran updates her blog with these developments, noting that the ALA put out a short District Dispatch reacting to the article. The dispatch outlines the ALA’s involvement with the National Broadband Plan.

Yesterday, The Digital Shift covered the article and the fallout as well as a publishing a reaction from the FCC regarding the outrage. (“Proposed ‘Digital Literacy Corps’ will not Usurp School Librarians’ Role, Explains FCC”)

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has a message for school librarians angered over a recent New York Times story that mentions the creation of a “digital literacy corps”: no one is trying to usurp their jobs.

“It’s not targeted at teaching kids in schools,” says Josh Gottheimer, FCC’s senior counselor to the chairman, about the proposed $200 million federal plan for the creation of a digital literacy program. “It’s really about families and others in the community. We’re not trying to duplicate but to close the gap for others.”

Buffy Hamilton write a reaction piece to that article and posts it on her blog. (“Dear FCC and ALA: Do You Really Not Get It?”) Two of her points revolve around why the FCC is considering the creating digital literacy trainers when there is infrastructure in place right now that could benefit from additional funding.

    • The concerns raised by school librarians was never about thinking our jobs were being “usurped.” Instead, we questioned why the FCC would not utilize an existing corps (school librarians) and expand it at a time in which we are being hacked down left and right as public schools grapples with budget cuts.   Why should children be asked to stay after school to learn an essential literacy in isolation?
    • Our public librarians are also an existing [corps] of digital literacy experts. Again, why not provide funding to grow their staff and services to build upon their existing efforts to work with learners of ALL ages?  Or to help public and school libraries develop partnerships to do community outreach to parents?

A friend on Twitter pointed out this comment to Buffy’s post:

Ann Ewbank

June 12, 2012 at 2:24 pm

Hi Buffy,
I serve on Molly Raphael’s School Library Task Force. Last week, the task force had a discussion about this issue. Lynne Bradley, director of the Office of Government Relations at ALA Washington, assured the Task Force that the office has been working on this issue for several years. She also explained that the tactics that some bloggers seem to be advocating might be damaging and unravel years of ALA’s advocacy work. In this situation I think it is wise to trust the staff at ALA Washington. (This is my opinion and I am not speaking on behalf of ALA or the Task Force)

The plot, as they say, thickens. Bobbi Newman, a member of the ALA Digital Literacy Task Force, writes a response to Buffy as well as others in her blog post, “Don’t Write Off ALA’s Work on Digital Literacy and the FCC Before Reading This” She takes great pains to show how the ALA has been engaged with the FCC throughout the process, that the digital literacy corps is an currently unfunded program, and that advocacy doesn’t always equal victory in the realm of politics and policy.

Ok, I think that’s everything.


Before I offer my comments, that same Twitter friend also pointed me towards Chapter 9.3 “Adoption and Utilization” of the National Broadband Plan. This is the section that maps out the creation of a Digital Literacy Corps as well as where libraries fit into the equation. It makes five recommendations:

  • Congress should consider providing additional public funds to create a Digital Literacy Corps to conduct training and outreach in non-adopting communities.
  • Congress, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) should commit to increase the capacity of institutions that act as partners in building the digital literacy skills of people within local communities.
  • Congress should consider providing additional public funds to IMLS to improve connectivity, enhance hardware and train personnel of libraries and other community-based organizations (CBOs).
  • OMB consulting with IMLS should develop guidelines to ensure that librarians and CBOs have the training they need to help patrons use next-generation e-government applications.
  • Congress should consider funding an Online Digital Literacy Portal.

(Emphasis mine.)

You really should read through it, but for the lazy, I’ll get to a few key points. First, the Digital Literacy Corps has a very open and flexible mandate; they are Americorps for digital literacy. They want to reach the poorest of the poor, the most rural, and the most isolated with the possibility of using schools as bases of operation, not as a replacement for school librarians. Hell, even the model example at the end of their passage talks about a volunteer group that works with the Chicago Public Library. There is an imagined partnership in place and it involves supplementing current library computer instruction.

Second, there is an emphasis on utilizing libraries because of their outreach to underserved communities, computer availability, and trained staff. However, they make note about the inadequacies and shortages of computers in a significant number of libraries around the country. The report goes on to discuss providing funding to bolster these technology gaps.

What is seen as a single prong effort is actually two: the creation of a digital literacy corps to go into communities that lack computer instruction classes (because there are some libraries that do not offer it) and supporting digital literacy partners (read: public libraries) with additional funding to update/purchase computers as well as provide training for staff.

With this last bit of information in mind, I have a few comments.

I feel that the omission of this part of the National Broadband Plan in the New York Times article put this whole thing into motion. It focused on the creation of the volunteer corps and left out the part about supporting libraries as part of the digital literacy initiative. I don’t think this issue would have evolved the way it did without that important piece of information. However, it painted an image of sending volunteers to schools to teach digital literacy during a time when school librarians are being cut. It is hardly a wonder why school librarians wouldn’t be upset and looking to rattle some cages.

The next misstep in this debacle comes from the ALA in failing to point out this little tidbit (the whole 9.3 section references ALA submitted material throughout, you would have thought they might have noticed their works being cited) as well as failure to effectively communicate with its members. The District Dispatch tells a fabulous story about how the ALA is working with the FCC and all the things they’ve done, but doesn’t set out why school librarians are not having their jobs usurped. To be cruel but honest, they could have pointed out that the focus of the Digital Literacy Corps is not aimed at school aged children, but adults who lack computer skills. Schools are just mentioned in passing as a possible base of operations for these volunteers to use. School libraries, the ALA could have said, are part of another advocacy agenda. In any event, there is no statement about the continued importance of school libraries and what ALA is doing for those kinds of libraries in the broad view.

Instead, there are reports of ALA reaching out to bloggers as well as statements coming from within ALA that the efforts of outraged school libraries might hurt the FCC/ALA relationship. As to the former, I’m not sure what that means nor what they are telling those people to ‘quell concerns’. The silence from both the organization and the bloggers in question has me wondering what transpired. As to the latter, I can only speculate that there wouldn’t be an outrage like this if the ALA had done a better job of reassurance to the school librarian membership as to where they fit in the organization’s advocacy agenda. Surely this would have been a better move than the “stop talking to the FCC and trust us” line that school librarians felt like they were fed.

In the end, as the movie lines goes, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” Within this cacophony of tweets and blog posts, there is a fundamental breakdown of communication between the ALA and its membership. In emphasizing their role with the FCC, the ALA did not address the basic worries of the school librarian membership and assure them of their place in the overall advocacy agenda. No one wants to hear how awesome the organization is when they aren’t sure where they stand in it. A statement of clarification is sorely needed here to bring things back into focus.

To be fair, I think some school librarians jumped the gun by emailing the head of the FCC over their comments. It’s a knee jerk reaction to an unfortunate article over an issue that is important enough to warrant some further research or inquiries to state associations and/or the ALA. It was the “’Get her!’ That was your whole plan, huh, ‘get her.’” play when you really need to line up something a bit more substantial when going after a federal regulatory body. This is not to say that school librarians should step aside and let the ALA handle it; they should be pressuring the association for results under the scrutiny level of “HURRY UP” and “NOW”.  It’s when you feel that the larger organization with the lobbyists and Washington presence didn’t do enough; that’s when you charge once more into the breech and take the campaign to the people.

I have a feeling this should make for an interesting annual conference coming up. I will be interested to see how the situation proceeds from here.

UPDATE: One other point I forgot to mention in writing this in the wee hours of last night is that the librarian unemployment glut could be eased or solved by hiring those unemployed librarians as part of the Digital Literacy Corps. If ALA wanted to push any angle with the FCC, it should be that one.

12 thoughts on “The ALA/FCC/Digital Corps Debacle

  1. Andy if you’re up for some light reading here is another document you might be interested in

    It is the FCC proceedings if you’d like to skip ahead the part related to the digital literacy training starts on p. 167 (paragraph 399), but the part that specifically relates to digital literacy training starts with paragraph 416 on p. 173. Paragraph 429 specifically calls out libraries and schools.

    This was ALA’s response to it

    This document was submitted to the Digital Literacy Task Force for comment and review before it was officially submitted in response.

  2. Thanks, Andy, for this post. I have been following the FCC and ALA Washington Office work on the Digital Literacy Corps silently, though I ALMOST wrote a blog post asking school librarians to write to the FCC after Fran’s blog post. I was not really sure enough how the Corps could work well for school libraries, so backed off. But school librarians had a lot to say about our role in digital literacy instruction that the FCC should listen to. I went to the link Bobbi suggested above and found that there was only one mention of school libraries, that the rest of the language was about “libraries and schools.”

    Here’s the problem. School librarians have been burned over and over by reports and committees and task forces that do not specifically say the “School Library” words. It’s not just ALA that leaves out the words but we really need our professional organization to look at almost everything they do to see if those words are there if the work has ANYTHING to do with school libraries–and not much doesn’t. People from the Carnegie Corporation apologized a couple of years ago for not being specific enough in one of their reports; they admitted that they assumed all smart people knew school libraries were crucial to student success. I wish it were so. ALA is so much better about it than many others but sometimes needs reminding. The ALA Task Force on School Library Advocacy crosses divisions and offices and that matters a lot.

    Right now, this month, so many pink slips are being handed out to so many school librarians, often by administrators and school boards who have totally missed the digital literacy instruction that school librarians do every day with students, staff and, yes, community members. To administrators, money for technology improvement to “libraries and schools” too often means public libraries and school classrooms and tech labs. School librarians DO read documents like the NY Times article and the SLJ article and the FCC response and the National Broadband Plan looking for “what’s in it for my library and my students” and worry that funds for a Digital Literacy Corps will take away the e-rate funds that might actually help us bridge the ever-widening Digital Divide we see in our schools. The sixth point of the Digital Literacy Task Force speaks to that which is reassuring. The other five points don’t mention the work of school librarians as instructors of digital literacy. “Libraries and schools” is just not the same thing. Sadly, there are a lot of unemployed school librarians who could fill that Corps. We are a bit sensitive about that.

    Thus, it is a perception that ALA is dissing us again. It isn’t really so, IMHO, but the perception is there. And needs to be honestly and openly addressed. And will be, I am sure.

  3. Hi Sarah
    Two points of clarification I need to offer. First the six points are not from the Digital Literacy Task Force but rather from a document OITP itself submitted to the FCC. That document was submitted to the Task Force for comments but it is now our document. There ARE school librarians on that Task Force.

    Second it is much to OITP’s credit that e-rate funding hasn’t been touched. In that document you can read “The FCC does not have authority to use E-rate to support digital literacy training.” and :”ALA respectfully suggests that incorporating digital literacy training into the Lifeline and Link Up programs is more legally sustainable than attempting to use the E-rate program.

    I know in times of fear it can be easy to see any action that is not explicitly for you as action against you. Please let me assure you that everything I have seen as a Task Force member and a member of the OITP Advisory Committee this is NOT the case.

    I appreciate you taking the time to try to understand what happened and get the truth behind the matter.

    We are all in this together

  4. First off, great post.

    What I think is weird about all this is that there is no clear answer to the question of why there is a need for a Digital Library Corps instead of funding the library?

    At each point in the description of Digital Library Corps from here, it just sounds like you need more librarians to train people, for example…

    “This training should ensure that Corps members gain a sufficient understanding of digital literacy and learn how to teach relevant lesson plans. It should also be designed to improve Corps members’ own digital literacy skills, as well as other professional skills that can enhance future career prospects.”

    …that is what libraries have been working on for some time.

    Also consider…“Some Corps members might be based out of urban schools where they could work with teachers, staff and administrators to create digital literacy lesson plans and integrate digital skills into the teaching of other subjects (see Box 9-2).”…sounds like a school librarian. Unless the Digital Library Corps are cheaper to hire, which I’m guessing will be true.

    Some other elements sounds like things librarians went through in library school…“Beyond their service terms, former Corps members would bring technology teaching skills back to their own communities, magnifying the impact of the program. As happens in numerous CNCS programs currently, Corps members would build other basic work skills: time management, team leadership, planning, contingency management and critical thinking.”…and are teaching patrons in different programs.

    I don’t think it would be wise of ALA to be associated with hiring a librarian to do what seems like a librarian job as a Digital Library Corps member instead of a librarian when there is such grave concern over de-professionalization of the profession.

    “We have talented young people graduating college committed to doing volunteer work in their communities, who may be unable to find jobs right away. And we have workers laid-off mid-career searching for employment opportunities that require a new set of skills. The Corps can put these people to work building our nation’s digital skills and building upon its history of grassroots action and community service. Then our country and all of our people will be prepared to compete in the 21st Century”

    Click to access DOC-296738A1.pdf

    Some of those people are librarians.

  5. I still stand by the letter I wrote (and posted on the LM_NET Facebook page) to the Commissioner, in which I took exception (with the help of Fran Bullington) to the Digital Literacy Corps and the way it ignores, and I mean that, teacher librarians as digital literacy coaches. I draw your attention to the fact that teacher librarians (also called school librarians, library media teachers, etc.) are teachers and are already especially qualified to teach digital literacy, along with information literacy and many other kinds of literacy, to kids and their parents. There are definitely not enough of us and we are losing ground every day. I still think ALA as a co-sponsor of this initiative (even with school librarians on the task force) missed this. Folks do not seem to get that we are being decimated right under our very eyes and with our own cooperation.

    • I see two fronts here:

      1) Preserving and protecting school librarians and for some of the reasons that you list regarding the fact that they are teachers. That makes sense for addressing digital literacy for students. School librarians are pretty vulnerable because the library is not considered a classroom, school librarians are generally not considered teachers within school districts, and there is still a serious image problem in which people imagine them as a high paid book minders. It’s something that really, really, REALLY needs to be addressed.

      BUT, given the anecdotal work loads I hear about, I would not want school librarians to take on the additional duty of teaching parents. This might run counter to my last point about image and I may get some pushback on this, but I’m reluctant to add any duty to an already heavy work load.

      2) That’s where the digital literacy volunteers come in. In working with a school as a base in tandem with the staff, they can address teaching parents and other adults. I see the digital literacy volunteers as a possible outlet for the library science graduate glut we have here at a time when digital literacy is a hot topic and one that looks to be solved by the NBP. Why train people from scratch when there are people out there right now with the skills and tools to do it already?

      tl;dr version: Save school librarians and hire unemployed or underemployed library science graduates for the digital literacy corps.

      • “tl;dr version: Save school librarians and hire unemployed or underemployed library science graduates for the digital literacy corps.”

        why not just make the money available to libraries to hire more people?

        • I’d say because the digital literacy volunteers should not necessarily connected to a library by way of paycheck and able to move around beyond the library’s service area. I’d say that on the basis of what’s in that section of the NBP; anymore than that is entering the realm of speculation.

          • Sorry if I wasn’t clear, but I mean instead of having a digital corps, just giving the money to the libraries to do the very thing the corps would be charged with doing. So, no corps, instead just more library staff in the areas of concern.

            And, I say this because I think it would be more cost effective, I am no expert, just seems logical.

            As for doing thing beyond the library service area, libraries have extended beyond the service area with bookmobiles and virtual with chat and the good old telephone. There are mobile classrooms that could be purchased and library could use them to get closer to remote communities.

            I don’t see why library couldn’t visits people’s homes if digital corps could be charged to do so.

            I’ll concede there might be reasons well established that might not make that possible, but I can’t think of any that I know of off the top of my head.

            I haven’t read anything indicating that the digital corps would do something library staff can’t do.

            So again, my point is if the goal is to get more people to utilize the internet and this is what libraries are doing, why create another organization instead of investing in libraries?

            This question is open to anyone to answer. 🙂

  6. Pingback: FCC vs. the Library? Maybe not so much... | EdReach

  7. Great summary, Andy. I am really glad that you looked at the issue using both primary and secondary sources. I agree that the glitch happened when the Digital Shift published their article about the issue. I believe that the author of the Digital Shift story, Lauren Barack, used poor word choice, when she said that “representatives of the American Library Association (ALA) reached out to some bloggers to help clarify the role the ALA has had with the FCC over the proposal to help quell concerns.” (emphasis mine). What really happened was a conference call with a couple of invited bloggers to discuss OGR, OITP, and ALA’s comprehensive strategic plan related to advocacy around the National Broadband plan- and how school librarians were specifically being served by ALA’s actions. I believe that some people misinterpreted Lauren Barack’s article, and why wouldn’t they? The words “quell concerns” imply that ALA was attempting to stifle debate. I would like all ALA members to remember that the Digital Shift is not an ALA publication, and Ms. Barack is a trade news reporter.

    The actions that ALA, OGR and OITP are taking around the National Broadband Plan (NBP) are specifically designed to help preserve E-Rate funding. E-Rate is absolutely essential to the future health and vitality of school librarians. Diverting funds from E-Rate to fund a Digital Literacy Corps is ALA’s primary concern.

    Thank you again for posting this informative recap and connecting the dots for the reader. I will reiterate here that in my opinion, what happened was a case of going up the ladder of inference. And now that we have deconstructed the event, I would like to invite members to begin a conversation about what lessons we can learn from this.

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