After a $66,000 overhaul, one of four bookmobiles operated by the San Francisco’s public library has been transformed into a techmobile to help close the digital divide.
The vehicle’s maiden voyage is scheduled for Saturday at the Fort Mason Center’s Festival Pavilion Spring Book Sale, hosted by the Friends of the Public Library. It follows efforts in other cities like the Houston Public Library, which has a “computer classroom on wheels,” the HPL Mobile Express.
“The initial idea was a desire to get technology out to community where there was a greater need,” said Martha Arroyo-Neves, San Francisco’s acting chief of branches. “To take technology out to places with greatest needs and people who had obstacles to getting to a neighborhood library.”
The 29-foot bus will have seven work stations with seven Mac Pro computers, Internet access and an instruction station, also with a Mac Pro. Library spokeswoman Michelle Jeffers said the effort doesn’t mean books are taking a back seat. “I don’t think it’s an either-or proposition.” There is “clearly a need” for both digital literacy and literacy, she said.
The bus will initially make stops beginning next month at three locations in the Visitacion Valley, Excelsior and Mission neighborhoods. But the expectation is the number of stops will expand.
One reason for the bus is simply access. San Francisco has long debated how to close the digital divide, such as by operating a public broadband network. The City’s new 5-year technology plan only asks if The City should attempt such an ambitious project.
The five-year tech plan says those who don’t have access to the Internet “skews toward low-income families, minorities, the unemployed, youth, the elderly, and those living with disabilities.” Sixteen percent of public-school students don’t have a computer with a home Internet connection.
Another reason for the bus is to teach youth the skills they need to become employable in the growing technology industry. At the start the 2011 tech boom in San Francisco there was a debate whether tech companies should have mandates to hire local residents, similar to how a certain percentage of public construction jobs must hire locally. The mandate was dropped amid talk that tech requires highly skilled workers. Instead, investment was made in tech training.
“A significant portion of San Francisco’s worker population lacks the skills and educational attainment to access these opportunities,” a city grant application said at the time. Back in the dot-com boom of the late 1990s, San Francisco’s demand for IT workers was met through “in-migration.”
Alice Chan, library branches southeast district manager, said the techmobile education program for the remainder of the year will begin with digital arts and Lego robotics, followed by digital storytelling and concluding with coding.
“The plan focuses on offering youth opportunities to play and learn with digital technology, while gaining 21st Century skills,” Chan said.