The Park Plaza Cooperative is a reminder to digital inclusion advocates around the US that increasing access to technology is work that can be done right at someone’s doorstep—or, the storm shelter of their manufactured housing community. Libraries Without Borders (LWB) is dedicated to ensuring that regardless of their circumstances, all people have equal access to information, education, and cultural resources. From the laundromat to the manufactured housing community, Libraries Without Borders aims to increase access to technology for all communities and thereby prevent anyone from having to stand on the “wrong side” of the digital divide.
The digital divide is rooted in a complex array of social, economic, and political issues and extends far beyond the provision of technology. Research shows that libraries serve as critical hubs in bridging the digital divide because they provide the resources needed to navigate the digital world and disseminate equal access to information. However, many of those who have the most to gain from the resources of the library are also the least likely to use them. Individuals who have never been to the library are significantly more likely to have incomes below $30,000 and just a high school education or less.(1) Individuals with an income below $30,000 are also those most affected by the digital divide. In analyzing this phenomenon, we are faced with the following question: how can libraries reach these people who stand to gain the most from library access? The answer of Libraries Without Borders: by serving them where they live.
Through the Wash and Learn Initiative (WALI), Libraries Without Borders works to expand access to the Internet, digital resources, and training in digital literacy by creating pop-up libraries in laundromats in underserved communities across the country. By focusing on laundromats, the Wash-and-Learn Initiative reaches a demographic that previously expressed low-engagement with the library (i.e. young, largely Hispanic and African-American, median income below $30,000/year). According to the Pew report, these individuals are failing to use the library because they are “young and restless,” moving from job to job, or working one shift after another simply to stay afloat.(2) Interestingly, the report notes that they all “tend to have positive views of libraries in general; at the moment, libraries just aren’t on their radar.” By meeting people at the laundromat, Libraries Without Borders makes libraries (and other public services) accessible to low-income people with demanding and erratic work schedules who are unfamiliar with these resources.
While WALI offers a scalable means of expanding access to digital resources and a stable Internet connection, the focus on laundromats often limits the initiative to urban communities. Any effort to address the digital divide must recognize that it is also found in low-income and minority communities in suburban and rural areas.
Beginning in the summer of 2019, Libraries Without Borders sought to replicate the WALI strategy in underserved rural and suburban manufactured-housing communities. Nationally, an estimated 22 million people live in manufactured housing communities, which represents the largest sector of non-subsidized, affordable housing in the United States. The demographic story of these families reveals a population that is, by a large margin, less educated and poorer than other Americans. In fact, the median income of a family living in a manufactured home is $30,000 a year, with about two-thirds of all residents lacking education beyond high school.(3)
The project began in Minnesota, with a town hall-style meeting where residents of the Park Plaza Cooperative Community in Fridley shared their vision for a future partnership between the local library and the community. The need for such a partnership is high. In fact, Park Plaza is home to some of the most economically disadvantaged families in the region: 44 percent live below 185 percent of the federal poverty line, and 40 percent of Park Plaza residents cannot afford Internet access or the technology needed to go online. The consequent lack of access to digital and educational resources became clear during the town hall, with residents prioritizing future programming related to technology, financial literacy, homework help, and legal support. In the long term, this program seeks to address these diverse needs by working with local Internet service providers to explore affordable options for Park Plaza and lay the groundwork for broadband expansion.
Supported by Park Plaza residents, Libraries Without Borders partnered with the Anoka County Library to turn the community’s storm shelter from an empty building to a miniature library, digital hub, and center for the community. Through this program, residents will gain Internet access and the opportunity to learn digital literacy skills in their own community. The site will be accessible for the library, non-profits, and local community organizations, allowing them the ability to reach people in the community, exactly where they live. The Anoka County Library will run weekly programming in the storm shelter, focused on story-times, English Language Learning, and after-school tutoring. Librarians will also work with the community to teach digital literacy skills and best practices for using the provided technology. Partnerships with nonprofits like Mobile Hope will ensure that formal trainings on digital literacy, health and nutrition, and legal aid are also consistently available.
To be clear, the Park Plaza Cooperative is no ordinary community, and this is no ordinary partnership. The decision to become a cooperative exemplifies the Park Plaza community’s solidarity in the face of challenges. Facing eviction in 2010, the Park Plaza community partnered with the NorthCountry Cooperative Foundation and ROC (Resident Owned Communities) USA to secure a loan and purchase the land underneath their homes. Residents now control the rent, make the rules, and manage the daily business of running the community. That spirit of self-determination and ownership pervades in the community and has enabled Park Plaza to unify around its partnership with the Anoka County Library and Libraries Without Borders. Indeed, the story of the Park Plaza Cooperative is a reminder to digital inclusion advocates around the US: coalition-building should never take place in isolation. Organizations must draw on the advocates who are already organizing for social, economic, and political issues in their community. By supporting that work and integrating it into the broader goals of digital inclusion, we will create accessible and equitable technology that is designed for all of us, whether in a laundromat or a manufactured housing community.
Adam Echelman (he/his) currently serves as the Executive Director for Libraries Without Borders. He has served as a Visiting Professor of Practice at John Jay College, where he co-taught a program on access to justice and legal information. Prior to LWB, he worked with asylum seekers at the Karnes Detention Center in Texas. He is a graduate of Yale University and a recipient of the Gordon Grand Fellowship.
- Horrigan, John. “A Portrait of Those Who Have Never Been to Libraries” Pew Research Center. Sep. 9 2016 https://www.pewinternet.org/2016/09/09/a-portrait-of-those-who-have-never-been-to-libraries/
- Lee, Rainie, Kathryn Zickuhr, and Kristen Purcell. “From Distant Admirers to Library Lovers–and beyond” Pew Research Center. March 13, 2014. https://www.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/9/2014/03/PIP-Library-Typology-Report_031314.pdf
- “The Facts about Manufactured Housing,” Prosperity Now. https://familypromise.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Manufactured-Housing-Fact-Sheet_2017.pdf
The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy – rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity – has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.