Building capacity for collecting content and enabling access to information by community members means training staff as well building their digital capacities. The involvement of local community members in the establishment of public access venues, and the ability of the venues to serve the community’s information needs, suggests that the focus on technology may be less important than a focus on community-gathering spaces (Hearn, 2005), i.e. the effective exchange of information may be more dependent upon the venue than upon the technology. The expansion of information-gathering tools can develop through these trusted centers.
A review of the literature confirms that infomediaries are pertinent to the success of public access venues. Sey & Fellows (2009) pointed out that infomediaries “have been found to be important contributors to the viability and sustainability of a public access venue.” The idea is not new. In his study of knowledge and information systems of urban poor, Schilderman (2002) suggests “social networks are the foremost source of information of the urban poor.” The poor tend to believe people they trust rather than perhaps more informed contacts with which they do not have close ties. He identified successful ways to meet information needs of urban poor, including involvement of the poor themselves as equal partners who can draw from and build on local knowledge, using community-based communication methods, and building the capacity of community-based organizations and key individuals within them. These features manifest differently in each type of venue depending on context. As discussed in an earlier chapter, our findings must be placed in the context of the relative proportion of each type of venue studied: across all 25 countries, approximately 12% of the venues are libraries and another 12% are telecenters. Cybercafés account for almost 75% of all public access venues studied.2 Accordingly, in terms of public access, the relative weight of cybercafés is three times higher than that of both libraries and telecenters combined. These numbers are important to keep in mind – both for those who will make programming decisions and for other interested parties – in both libraries and telecenters, which tend to have more defined roles for infomediaries and community-engagement activities than cybercafés.
While infomediary work is generally considered an important component of library services, users put more value in the infomediary role of telecenter and cybercafé operators because they are perceived to offer more effective help with ICT tools and services. Although, the role of librarians is to help users find information, libraries tend to have more limited ICT services and their staff is generally not well trained in the use of ICT tools (if available to them).
Infomediaries can be formal or informal liaisons between communities. A formal infomediary might be a librarian or telecenter/cybercafé operator who has a paid position within the venue. Their job is to reach out to an underserved community, perhaps providing language bridges, literacy connections, needs links, or leadership associations. Equally important are informal infomediaries who may supply similar links but through different means (examples include a child to a parent or vice versa, language translators, or unofficial connections between communities). Infomediaries can act on multiple levels: at a community level, between communities, or between a community and a venue, as well as at an individual level: between a user and technology. In this chapter, we focus specifically on formal infomediaries, and we contrast their role in libraries with their role in telecenters and cybercafés.
How do infomediaries play a role in libraries, especially given that of the libraries studied, 44% do not offer ICT access to the public? Libraries that do offer ICT access generally do not have digitally literate librarians (trained to use or help users with ICT tools). These factors, prevalent in the majority of the libraries studied, strongly influenced users’ negative perceptions about the utility of libraries to meet community needs. Lack of ICT literacy also created negative perceptions concerning the skills librarians offered as infomediaries to members of the community. But we found that when libraries proactively become social and community resource centers, the “digital gap” of the librarians is less apparent than when libraries only provide access to books and other non-digital resources.