Findings from the Digital Equity in Libraries Study

After three years of collaboration with librarians from the Multnomah County Library in Portland, Oregon, we are pleased to share the findings and outcomes of the Advancing Digital Equity in Public Libraries: Assessing Library Patrons’ Problem Solving in Technology Rich Environments research project. This project was supported by a National Leadership Grant (LG-06-14-0076-14A) from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).

The purpose of the research was to examine and understand the digital problem solving processes of vulnerable adults. The research was intended to discover what digital problem solving skills individuals had, how they used those skills, and how libraries could determine how best to support these individuals as they engaged in digital problem solving.  

You can read about the study in our Executive Summary. The Executive Summary also contains links to more detail what we learned as well as a tool kit we created that librarians can use to help support the digital problem solving needs of their adult patrons.  

We encourage you to use and adapt our materials to your settings, and to share your adaptations with us and the field. We’d also love to hear from you in the comments.


Examining Adult Learners’ Digital Problem Solving in Libraries Using A Learning Typology

Last week Jill Castek of the University of Arizona and Amy Honisett of the Multnomah County Library System presented at the ProLiteracy Conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  In this presentation, we shared our emerging findings around what constitutes digital problem solving and the approaches and strategies digital problem solvers use.  You can view our presentation in this pdf.  If you have any questions or comments, we’d love to hear from you.

Examining Adult Learners’ Digital Problem Solving in Libraries Using A Learning Typology. 

Upcoming ProLiteracy Conference

We are busy preparing for the ProLiteracy Conference being held September 27-30 in Minneapolis, MN.  Our workshop is on Friday, September 29 at 2:45 pm.  It’s entitled Examining Adult Learners’ Digital Problem Solving in Libraries Using A Learning Typology.  We hope to see you there, and we’ll be posting our slides on this blog for those of you not able to attend the conference this year.

Following the ProLiteracy Conference, we’ll be turning our attention to wrapping up our analysis and preparing our findings for dissemination.  Keep an eye out for those materials.  We are looking forward to sharing our findings with you hearing your insights.

Digital Health Literacy – An introduction

On August 9, 2017 we will be holding a Digital Health Literacy Convening in conjunction with the Literacy Education and Second Language Learning for Adults (LESLLA) Symposium.  People from across the country who are interested in digital health literacy will be attending this convening in person and virtually in order to discuss the future of research in digital health literacy.  We are bringing together this group of scholars because we believe that digital devices and access to the internet can serve as a vital link to health information that may ultimately contribute to an improvement in health care outcomes. As Santos, Handley, Omark, and Schillinger (2014) noted, “reducing health disparities in U.S. immigrant communities represents a complex task that will require interdisciplinary problem-solving and community partnership” (p. 89).

To help set the stage for this convening, we are using this post to share some emerging thoughts about digital health literacy. Our definition of digital health literacy is grounded in the work of Norman and Skinner (2006) and Bodie and Dutta (2008).  Norman and Skinner suggested that ehealth literacy includes basic reading and writing skills, working knowledge of using computers, a basic knowledge of science, and appreciation of the social context of how online health information is produced, transmitted, and received. Bodie and Dutta argued that it requires “a combination of context-specific and analytical skills,” the ability to use a computer, and the ability navigate the internet in order to make informed decisions about one’s health.

Our growing interest in digital health literacy is connected to the idea that health literacy in general can contribute to participation in programs aimed at health promotion, disease prevention, and screening (Rudd, 2014).  According to Rudd (2014), “there is an established link between patients’ literacy skills and health outcomes.  For example, literacy levels have been shown to have an effect on knowledge, behaviors, risk factors, morbidity, and mortality” (Chapter 2, Paragraph 2). However, there can be a mismatch between the demands of health systems and the literacy of the population, which can limit access to information, services, and care.  We suggest that improving individuals’ digital skills is one step toward removing barriers to health information.

Improving digital skills is especially important as the increased reliance on digital technology in healthcare also may lead to an increase in health disparities (Bodie & Dutta, 2008; Klecan, 2010).  This is especially apparent as health care providers have come to expect patients to come to medical appointments prepared with informed questions, that they know how to access information using all available tools, including the internet, and that they use digital tools to track compliance to care, including preventative care and medication use. (Basics of HealthIt). To date, little has been done to help healthcare providers support patients in their quest to use the digital tools now required for full engagement in healthcare (Sheon, 2017).

It is within this environment that individuals with less experience with and access to digital tools can struggle with equity of services, validity of information, access to the hardware, knowledge of how to navigate information retrieval systems, reading levels, website design, and knowledge of what is online. Part of the problem is home internet penetration rates, which were 73% in 2015 (Turner, 2016) and the fact that 36% of low-income Americans also lack a smartphone (Turner, 2016).  There is also a correlation between race/ethnicity and internet access as well as gaps marked by age and educational attainment (Turner, 2016). Access, however, is only part of the picture.  As Klecan (2010) suggested, there are those who may not be able to achieve the needed digital literacy and ehealth literacy skills because of lack of access or support; therefore, they would benefit from the presence of someone to help them access the material online and make sense of that material. What this material might look like and how it should be delivered is an area of interest to the team at Portland State.

Thus far there are too few studies to claim a strong relationship between ehealth engagement and health status, although Stellefson et al. (2013) showed weak associations between long-term health maintenance and the use of ehealth resources.  We are intrigued, however, by Stellefson et al.’s finding that as participants in their study used health online resources, they grew more comfortable with using computers and the internet. The success of this model can be seen in the Richmond Digital Health Literacy Project (Communities in Collaboration, 2016). Our previous research has shown that as individuals gain confidence in using computers and the internet, they begin using it to meet life goals of which health information seeking is one (Jacobs et al., 2015).

Our overarching concern is that individuals who have little access to the internet and have low digital literacy skills may be less able to access health information and be active participants in their health care.  Our hypothesis is that as individuals build digital literacy skills they will be able to increase their health information seeking behaviors and build their capacity for improved engagement in their health care. Ultimately, we hope that this improvement would result in decreasing health disparities among vulnerable populations. We hope that by collaborating with others who also are interested in these questions that we can begin to build opportunities for those who have thus far been excluded from the digitization of healthcare to engage with health services and information in order to improve health outcomes and continue learning.



Basics of health IT. (2013, January 15). Retrieved from

Bodie, G. D., & Dutta, M. J. (2008). Understanding health literacy for strategic health marketing: Ehealth literacy, health disparities, and the digital divide. Health Marketing Quarterly, 25(1–2), 175–203.

Communities in Collaboration, (2016)  Summative evaluation, City of Richmond Digital Health Literacy Program.

Jacobs, G., Castek, J., Pizzolato, D., Pendell, K., Withers, E., & Reder, S. (2015). Executive Summary: Tutor-facilitated digital literacy acquisition in hard-to-serve populations, a research project.

Klecun, E. (2010). Digital literacy for health: The promise of health 2.0. International Journal of Digital Literacy and Digital Competence, 1(3), 48–57.

Norman, C. D., & Skinner, H. A. (2006). Ehealth literacy: Essential skills for consumer health in a networked world. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 8(2), e9.

Rudd, R. (2014). Public Health Literacy. In Institute of Medicine, Board on Population Health and Public Health Practice, Roundtable on Health Literacy (Eds.), Implications of Health Literacy for Public Health: Workshop Summary. Retrieved from

Santos, M. G., Handley, M. A., Omark, K., & Schillinger, D. (2014). ESL Participation as a Mechanism for Advancing Health Literacy in Immigrant Communities, Journal of Health Communication: International Perspectives, 19:S2, 89-105, DOI:10.1080/10810730.2014.934935

Sheon, A. R., Bolen, S. D., Callahan, B., Shick, S., Perzynski, A. T. (2017). Addressing disparities in diabetes management through novel approaches to encourage technology adoption and use. JMIR Diabetes, 2(2), e16. DOI: 10.2196/diabetes.6751

Stellefson, M., Chaney, B., Barry, A. E., Chavarria, E., Tennant, B., Walsh-Childers, K., … Zagora, J. (2013). Web 2.0 chronic disease self-management for older adults: A systematic review. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 15(2), e35.

Turner, D. (2016). Digital denied: The impact of systemic racial discrimination on home-internet adoption. Retrieved from

Forthcoming Publications

We are excited to announce two forthcoming publications. We hope that you’ll put these on your reading list.  Once you have a chance to read these, we would love to hear your comments!

  • Learning from our community – using an assessment tool to meet patrons at the point of need. A chapter in a collection tentatively scheduled for Spring 2018 entitled Tech For All. Amy Honisett, Public Training Librarian at the Multnomah County Library, is the lead author.

Multnomah County Library is dedicated to meeting our patrons at their points of need. In order to understand the changing needs of our community, the library strives to understand how people use technology and to identify modes of support that will help patrons use of technology for enjoyment and to improve their lives. To do this, we partnered with researchers to examine adult patrons’ digital problem solving skills. This three year effort, funded by a grant from the IMLS, explored and analyzed skills, strategies and dispositions involved in digital problem solving.

  • From Digital Literacies to Digital Problem Solving: Expanding Technology-rich Learning Opportunities for Adults. Tyler Frank, Graduate Assistant at the University of Arizona and Adult Education Instructor at Pima Community College, is the lead author.  The article will be coming out later this summer in the COABE Journal (Journal of Research and Practice for Adult Literacy, Secondary, and Basic Education).
We review four articles full of suggestions and resources regarding how to move beyond an exclusive focus on digital skills to foster digital problem solving among learners. We note specific recommendations that the authors give for settings ranging from digital skills classes to classes for English language learners. All of the authors emphasized that tasks need to move beyond skill and drill toward problem solving in meaningful settings for the learners. 

Net Inclusion 2017 Brings Together Digital Inclusion Advocates

This post was written by team member, Matthew Timberlake, IT Portfolio Manager of the Multnomah County Library System.

Representatives from the City of Portland, Multnomah County Library and Multnomah County attended the NDIA Net Inclusion 2017 conference in St. Paul, Minnesota.

This was the second annual Net Inclusion conference, and like the first, it was a remarkable gathering of professionals from many fields who work to foster the goals of digital equity and inclusion (definitions below). Also attending from Portland: members of NTEN, the Nonprofit Technology Network, and Free Geek, which offers free refurbished computers and technology classes.

Convened by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, the 2017 conference featured speakers and panelists from government, academia, libraries, community-based organizations and non-profits. It featured video speeches by Minnesota Senators Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar, and the keynote address was delivered by Maya Wiley of The New School.

A recurring subject of the conference was the path forward for digital equity in light of the new Administration’s antipathy to regulation and issues of digital inclusion.

Ajit Pai, the new Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, has moved to roll back the internet privacy and net neutrality rules promulgated by the previous chairman, Tom Wheeler. The FCC has already severely limited the LIfeLine program, designed to provide low-cost internet access to low-income Americans.

These core issues of digital equity, free speech, and economic opportunity dominated the conference. There were more than 25 panels presented, with topics including:

The NDIA also announced that this year’s recipient of the Charles Benton Digital Equity Champion Award is Emy Tseng, a Senior Communications Program Specialist at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce, citing Tseng’s many years of work to increase broadband access and adoption in underserved communities throughout the United States, and her efforts as the Digital Inclusion Director for the City of San Francisco, where she shaped one of the earliest local government digital inclusion programs.

Lastly, there was an effort to find clarity in defining the differences between digital equity, and its necessary component, digital inclusion. The NDIA has published the following definitions:

Digital Equity is a condition in which all individuals and communities have the information technology capacity needed for full participation in our society, democracy and economy. Digital Equity is necessary for civic and cultural participation, employment, lifelong learning, and access to essential services.

Digital Inclusion refers to the activities necessary to ensure that all individuals and communities, including the most disadvantaged, have access to and use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). This includes 5 elements: 1) affordable, robust broadband internet service; 2) internet-enabled devices that meet the needs of the user; 3) access to digital literacy training; 4) quality technical support; and 5) applications and online content designed to enable and encourage self-sufficiency, participation and collaboration. Digital Inclusion must evolve as technology advances. Digital Inclusion requires intentional strategies and investments to reduce and eliminate historical, institutional and structural barriers to access and use technology.


Webinar: Digital Equity in Libraries: Understanding the Problem Solving Skills of Adults

On May 30, Kathy Harris of Applied Linguistics at Portland State University hosted Jill Castek and Gloria Jacobs for a webinar where we presented where we are in our research. We had people attending in person as well as virtually. It was rewarding to share our work with scholars and practitioners from Portland State University, members of our national advisory group, our IMLS program officer, and other individuals who are interested in our work.

Screen Shot 2017-05-31 at 5.25.59 PM.png

After our presentation, we had informative and generative 30-minute discussion.

We recorded the webinar and the discussion, and we invite you to view it.  You can also download a pdf of the slideshow and a two page hand-out about the research.  If you have ideas or questions about our work, we invite you to comment on this blog post.

View webinar

Download Slides



A Quick Update!

Last week Matt Timberlake, a member of our team from the Multnomah County Library, was at the Net Inclusion 2017 conference in Saint Paul, MN.  We’ll be sharing some insights from that experience in an upcoming post.

This week, team members Cindy Gibbon of the Multnomah County Library and Jill Castek of the University of Arizona are presenting at the Partnership for Progress on the Digital Divide 2017 Conference.  We’ll also be sharing that presentation on this blog.

We are also deep into our analysis and are turning our attention to creating materials for dissemination. We’re looking forward to sharing those with you this summer and fall.

And don’t forget, we would love to feature guest bloggers!  If you have research in  the area of digital literacy acquisition, digital equity and inclusion, or experiences in working with adult learners in digital literacy that you’d like to share, please let us know! Email for more information.

Understanding Our Patrons’ Needs In Order to Thrive Together in a Digital Environment

We had the honor of once again presenting at the Oregon Library Association conference held April 19-22.  Our team members, Amy Honisett and Cindy Gibbon from the Multnomah County Library, presented on how our work is helping us to understand patrons’ needs in order to thrive in a digital environment.  We are happy to provide a pdf of our slides. If you have any questions or comments, we would love to hear from you!

Screen Shot 2017-04-25 at 2.04.06 PM


Online Northwest Conference–Assessing and Addressing Library Patrons’ Digital Problem Solving Skills: What Does Digital Equity Look Like in the Library?

At the end of March 2017, our team members, Cindy Gibbon and Judy Anderson of the Multnomah County Library along with Jill Castek of the University of Arizona, presented emergent findings at the Online Northwest Conference in Portland, Oregon.  This conference focuses on libraries, technology, and culture.  Here are our slides from our presentation.

Screen Shot 2017-04-07 at 1.24.02 PM

If you have any questions or comments, we would love to hear from you.