OPL executive director: Library staff can help you navigate online world

Katy Willis, left, instructs Betty Wonderly, both of Omaha, how to use her Amazon Kindle on Oct. 7, 2011, at Omaha Public Library's Willa Cather branch.

I remember getting my first home computer in 1989. It was about the size of a Fiat, and its primary purpose was to create envy among our friends. We didn't have much use for it, apart from a few clunky games, but it was a great conversation piece at parties.

About two or three years later, the computer found its purpose. We got our first dial-up Internet connection. The familiar wail of the modem still rings in my ears.

Technology is so ubiquitous now that many of us take it for granted. It's easy to assume that everyone who wants a computer has one and that the entire world is online. Yet, more than just Internet access is necessary these days to communicate effectively.

Due to the complexity and size of data that we are sharing, broadband is also needed. Broadband is essentially the high-speed “always connected” Internet access that allows us to send email, share photos, watch a YouTube video, or send a resume to a prospective employer.

According to a 2010 survey completed by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 83 percent of people in Omaha have broadband access at home. It's easy to see that number and feel confident that Omaha is wired and connected.

However, when you start to dig a little bit deeper, the numbers drop. Home access is a reality to only 55 percent of individuals over age 65; 67 percent of African-Americans; 52 percent of households earning less than $20,000 a year; and only 17 percent of adults with less than a high school education. There is still a great divide of haves and have-nots, and the have-nots are often the most in need of reliable Internet access.

Gary Wasdin

Applying for a job, selecting a drug plan on Medicare, setting up immigration appointments and completing school projects are just a few of the critical things that must now be done online.

Because of this growing need, Cox Communications has joined a national program, Connect2Compete, allowing families with at least one child qualifying for free lunch at school to receive low-cost broadband at home for up to two years, as well as the opportunity to buy an inexpensive computer, laptop or iPad.

If you want to learn more or check your eligibility, stop by any of our libraries and our staff can help you fill out the short application. Or you can use one of the library's computers to visit connect2compete.org/cox.

Getting more homes connected is important, but we know that people still need help navigating through the information. Starting Oct. 1, all uninsured individuals will need to begin choosing an insurance provider as part of the Affordable Care Act. Of course, this work must be completed online. Even if you have a computer at home, this may be a confusing and daunting task.

President Barack Obama has called on our nation's public libraries to step up to the plate and help ensure that everyone receives the assistance he or she needs to make smart decisions. If you or someone you know needs to choose an insurance provider, stop by any Omaha Public Library location and staff will be there to help.

The library will also offer programs for individuals and small businesses to help you understand the process, as well as volunteer navigators to help you evaluate your choices. Scheduled workshops are also available at omahalibrary.org.

Libraries are a critical player in providing access to information. Though methods for obtaining knowledge and needs change over the years, the library and its community partners work to ensure that everyone has equal opportunities to secure its privileges.

Gary Wasdin is the executive director of the Omaha Public Library.

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