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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > May 2024

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Vol. 44 No. 4 — May 2024

Crossing the Divide: An Urban Librarian’s Awakening to the Digital Divide in Rural Public Libraries
by Tim Kuelker

This was the digital divide in its most tangible form; unlike my experience in the city, it didn’t just impact individuals—it impacted entire communities.
I never imagined that I would end up living—much less working—in rural Canada. I also never imagined that a tenure in rural Canada would be the hands-on education that taught me what is at the core of library services. In Elk Point, Alberta—a small Canadian town of barely more than 1,000 residents—I learned firsthand of the challenges that rural public libraries face with technology. In Elk Point, I confronted a phenomenon often discussed in terms of individuals but rarely applied to public libraries: the digital divide.

Urban Beginnings

Until I moved to Elk Point, I lived as far removed from rural life as one could. Growing up in one of Canada’s largest cities, my relationship with public libraries was formed by the quintessential urban existence. Early experiences with public libraries were shaped by large, urban branches—the kind that have more services than any resident can name, a footprint the size of a city block, and, if lucky, an article in Architectural Digest about how much of an oasis it is among the bustle of urban life.

Working in the very libraries I visited as a child, I came to know only about public library services in these urban settings. It was the early 2010s, and in these libraries, makerspaces and lendable technologies were quickly becoming established services, public access computers and free wireless access arguably saw more success as a service than the books on the shelves, and libraries were seen as the place to be to study, work, and play—all through a device, of course.

It was at these libraries that I found a passion for technology services, spurred by a curiosity for the new technologies now commonly found in urban public libraries. My career transformed into becoming a facilitator of these services and an expert in new technologies, as I spent my days in makerspaces and labs, increasingly far away from shelves of books. As much as I embraced the urban experience and was wary to leave it behind, I found myself behind the wheel of a U-Haul driving through the Canadian prairies bound for Elk Point. Little did I know what I would find.

Adapting to New Challenges

When I arrived, I began my work at the Northern Lights Library System, a regional library system serving nearly 50 independent public libraries in rural communities across the province. I found myself tasked with supporting technology services for rural public libraries, some no bigger than study rooms at the libraries I had left behind. Initially, I was led by the assumption that my experiences in urban libraries would translate seamlessly into this new context. I imagined rural libraries as smaller counterparts to their urban siblings, equipped with the same technological advancements but on a smaller scale.

In my first weeks in Elk Point, I was excited to find that this assumption was true and that the independent public libraries that collectively made up the library system embraced technology services in many of the same ways that urban public libraries did. Gaming consoles and interactive touchscreens could be found at many of the libraries, and innovative technology programs tailored to a wide swath of ages and experiences could be found at others. The Northern Lights Library System provided what many libraries couldn’t fund on their own accord—makerspace equipment, such as VR sets and collections of laptops to promote gaming clubs for kids.

On the surface, it was much the same as what I had left. But as I grew into this new atmosphere of librarianship, something didn’t feel right. While on the surface, these libraries were the same, upon looking deeper, they were actually very different. I soon came to learn that the gaming consoles and interactive touchscreens only offered a fraction of the opportunity for exploration as they could, since they struggled to maintain a fast-enough internet connection, technology programming could only support a small number of attendants to ensure that each could maintain a reliable internet connection, and the makerspace equipment simply couldn’t operate at some libraries, as it required more bandwidth than was available.

I came to realize that it wasn’t the absence of high-tech makerspaces or the latest digital tools that I had become accustomed to in the city that caught my attention in this regard. It was more fundamental than that—it was the lack of reliable high-speed internet access. This was the digital divide in its most tangible form; unlike my experience in the city, it didn’t just impact individuals—it impacted entire communities.

The Rural Divide

To understand the struggles faced by the libraries of the Northern Lights Library System, one first needs to understand the urban-rural divide in Canada. In 2016, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) implemented Telecom Regulatory Policy CRTC 2016-496, setting a nationwide service objective for broadband quality. It outlined a basic service objective of 50Mbps of download speed and 10Mbps of upload speed—now commonly referred to as 50/10—setting a precedent for not only the capacity and quality of internet connections for households in Canada, but the accessibility of internet connections as well, particularly in rural communities. Most importantly, it outlined broadband connectivity as an essential service.

With only 67% of rural households being able to attain the minimums targeted in this policy in 2022—in comparison to 99% of urban households—we see where the digital inequities between rural and urban communities begin to emerge. In Alberta, the statistic is far worse, with only 42% of rural households being able to attain the objective of 50/10—the lowest of any Canadian province. To librarians, this prompts the question of the role that public libraries can play in addressing this issue. Public libraries have traditionally been institutions that work to address inequalities, particularly regarding access to information. The inequalities experienced by those disproportionately affected by the digital divide are a modern-day example of this.

But what is needed to bridge this divide? In a 2018 study brought forth by members of the Ontario Ministry of Education, research was conducted into the importance of internet access in public libraries. Acknowledging that the scope of libraries is increasing beyond the traditional place to borrow books, the study emphasized that public access computers and free internet access in public libraries had become an expected service. Interviews with participants in the study highlighted that the majority used these services for social connection (60%), while high numbers also used them for education (42%) and employment and entrepreneurship activities, such as job searching or engaging in self-employment (40%).

To facilitate internet services in public libraries, the study concluded that the average library patron needed 2.6Mbps–4.2Mbps of bandwidth allocated to them during their visit to support an average task level. Located in urban areas, urban public libraries are privy to the broadband available at the capacity needed to support this allocation. However, when one turns their attention to rural public libraries, it is quickly seen that these institutions commonly face the same broadband constraints as rural households.

Broadband connectivity is a key component of a library’s infrastructure. Particularly in rural areas, public libraries often find themselves to be the only spaces that offer free wireless access in their communities. They are also more often than not the only place available for members of the public to utilize a computer or a printer. It is in these areas that public libraries play a critical role in bridging the digital divide and providing digital equity to rural populations. However, rural public libraries often find themselves facing the same struggle of obtaining and maintaining reliable connectivity as the patrons they attempt to serve. For libraries like the ones that are a part of Northern Lights, the challenge to champion digital equity for rural populations is one they must first overcome themselves.

Canadian bandwidth by province and territory (2022); Summary of year-end 50/10 unlimited bandwidth coverage (2022)

Closing the Gap: Bridging the Rural Digital Divide

This digital divide is no more evident than at the libraries that make up the Northern Lights Library System. When I began my tenure, the majority of the nearly 50 public libraries that we serve were provided with 5Mbps of bandwidth service. Comparing this to the finding that the average library patron needs 2.6Mbps–4.2Mbps allocated to them during their visit to support an average task level, we see that this figure poses a challenge to even a moderate level of activity. At 5Mbps, it’s fair to estimate that only a small handful of people can reliably utilize the internet connection at the same time, remembering that this figure includes staff members working at the library, not just patrons.

The bandwidth found at these libraries was more than just a sign of technological lag; to patrons, it represented a significant barrier to accessing the broader digital world. Reflecting on my prior experiences at urban libraries, I realized that this was a challenge I had not previously encountered. In urban settings, technological access was taken for granted, with a continuous influx of new technology able to be supported by a robust broadband infrastructure. I understood that introducing new technology would be an exercise in futility if we failed to address the digital gap, as any new technology would be relegated to the same fate. With this realization, my team and I set a clear goal: to meet the service objective of 50/10 set by the CRTC in 2016.

Admittedly, this was an ambitious target—a staggering 900% increase in bandwidth for our libraries. But within 1 year of arriving at the Northern Lights Library System, my team and I were able to secure funding to bring our first increase in bandwidth to these libraries, resulting in a 300% increase in internet speeds for the majority of our libraries. It was a huge step toward bridging the digital divide for communities in rural Alberta. However, in comparison to the monumental steps yet to come, it barely felt like a victory at all. The increase that we brought to libraries still sees them fall far short of the nationwide service objective set by the CRTC, nearly a decade after the objective was set into policy.

Addressing the Challenges of a Digital Future

The digital divide experienced by rural public libraries, exemplified by those served by the Northern Lights Library System, mirrors a nationwide challenge. Across Canada, rural communities face the stark reality of inadequate internet speeds hindering essential technology services in their public libraries. While strides have been made by the government in setting a nationwide service objective for Canadian households, the oversight of public libraries in this policy leaves a critical gap in addressing the digital inequities faced by these communities. The complexity of this issue defies a single solution. Rural public libraries and systems are left to chart their own course in the pursuit of providing reliable high-speed internet services. It’s a daunting and costly endeavor, but as modern-day librarians, it is incumbent upon us to rise to the challenge. Just as we’ve adapted to evolving technological landscapes, we must now advocate and innovate to ensure that no community is left behind in the digital age.

As we navigate these challenges, it’s essential to remember the fundamental role of public libraries as bastions of knowledge and equality. By bridging the digital divide, we uphold our commitment to providing equitable access to information and empowering communities to thrive in an increasingly digital world.


Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). (2016). Telecom Regulatory Policy CRTC 2016-496.

Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). (n.d.). “Communications Market Reports, Current Trends—High-Speed Broadband.”

Kamaludeen, M., Ismaeel, S., Petrocelli, F., Scarfo, C., and Tabari, S. (2018). “Broadband Enabled Fabric for Public Libraries in Canada.” Journal of Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics, 16(5), 64–69.

Tim Kuelker Tim Kuelker is a champion of technology services and has worked with public libraries across Western Canada to improve access to technology and innovation. He is currently the manager of technology services and infrastructure at the Northern Lights Library System.