Library staff secures grant to increase farmworker digital literacy, internet access

A librarian-led research project funded by a nearly $750,000 Institute of Museum and Library Services National Leadership Grant will assess migrant and seasonal farmworkers’ literacy and access to broadband service and devices in North Carolina over the next three years.

Researchers from East Carolina University’s Laupus Health Sciences Library and the College of Health and Human Performance will build on a previous collaboration from a National Library of Medicine grant and the State Library of North Carolina CARES Act grant, which focused on health information disparities farmworkers experience.

Roger Russell, the associate director of Laupus Library, and the study’s principal investigator, will be joined in the study by other Laupus faculty and employees including HHP’s Joseph Lee and Leslie Cofie, Catherine LePrevost and Emery Harwell from NC State University, and representatives of Student Action with Farmworkers. Advice and support come from representatives of local communities and the North Carolina Agromedicine Institute, the N.C. Farmworker Health Program, National Digital Inclusion Alliance, Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs, Network of the National Library of Medicine, and the N.C. Agriculture Digital Alliance.

The librarian-led research project is funded by an Institute of Museum and Library Services National Leadership Grant.

The librarian-led research project is funded by an Institute of Museum and Library Services National Leadership Grant.

Prior research by investigators from Laupus, and their partners, found agricultural laborers generally have difficulty accessing important health information, and when provided with digital devices and a reliable internet connection, many of those information accessibility issues are resolved. A former survey participant said that reliable internet access allowed him and his peers “find information about taking care of yourself, how to protect yourself, what to do, what medicine to take and which not to.”

The current research project asks three main questions: how accessible is internet for farmworkers?; what are the information literacy levels of farmworkers and farmers?; and how well are farmworker communities already being served by information-facilitating organizations like libraries and internet service providers?

Russell said the study aims to develop webinars for librarians, newsletters and case studies of librarian outreach experiences that exemplify unique experiences or innovative ideas that provide resources and services to assist agricultural communities with access to health literacy resources.

One of the challenges that Russell said he had when drafting the grant proposal was understanding what the end product would be, what would be “on our workbench when this is all said and done. How do we put the library at the center of solving real-world problems that hurt health and wellbeing in eastern North Carolina?”

What became evident in the process of researching and drafting the proposal, Russell said, is the continuing lack of reliable and quantitative information about farmworker access to literacy materials, technology and broadband access.

“The value really is the research because there’s nothing of significance out there currently in the literature that explains, or tries to address, the gap in technology that farmworker communities are experiencing,” Russell said. “We’re looking at trying to figure out where the roadblocks are, where the gaps are, and hopefully producing research with insights as to what we might do to fill those gaps and provide last mile internet connections for migrant farmworkers.”

“The purpose of the project is to document, in as unbiased a way as possible, the problems that we find so we can take that research to legislators or the private sector as documentation to really illustrate what the problem is,” Russell said.

The challenges that Russell expects to document, in terms of access to information technology, include farm owners not having the means to provide internet access to migrant workers, a lack of return on investment for telecommunications companies in providing access in rural areas, and social prejudice.

Elizabeth Ketterman, director of Laupus, hopes that the grant-funded research will provide more than the necessary gap-stopping measures that delivering digital communications tools to one family would have. Rather, Ketterman hopes that fact-based research will spur a systemic and multi-pronged approach to closing digital gaps for migrant and farming families in North Carolina.

“We have aims to produce materials for other groups within this project, including, of course, the farmworkers, but also for public librarians, giving them fact sheets and policy briefs that will describe how to talk with broadband policymakers and information literacy materials that can be shared with this population of patrons. This kind of information will also be distributed to community health workers who have direct contact with the farmworker communities,” Ketterman said.

This new focus on basic, baseline research may give digital equity advocates more ammunition in their struggle to help provide basic information access to disadvantaged communities.

Bloss and Russell speak about their health literacy grant at the Farmworker Institute in Durham in April.

Bloss and Russell speak about their health literacy grant at the Farmworker Institute in Durham in April.

“It’s a different kind of satisfaction,” Ketterman said, of doing research instead of distributing tangible goods. “It’s purpose-driven work we’re doing now. It’s not as direct, right? We aren’t necessarily giving those farmworkers a physical device as we’ve done with previous awards; we’re doing more of the data gathering that will help influence other positive infrastructure changes for them in the long run.”

Informational materials about digital equity for migrant workers that result from the grant-funded research will be made available in Spanish, as well as English, to reach the widest audience possible, Ketterman said.

Russell and his team have a fixed timeline for the research and delivery of results from the study which will speed the findings to those who can implement the recommendations in a timely fashion. The first 12 months will be occupied with the data gathering and soliciting survey results from farmworkers, farm managers and librarians who serve farming communities and other stakeholders. The second year will be consumed with data analysis and the final year is budgeted for writing the consolidation of the research findings and communicating those findings to government and business leaders as well as the general public.

The library faculty members at Laupus have a track record of working to meet the health literacy needs of North Carolina’s seasonal farm employees. In 2019, librarians secured a $75,000 grant to help migrant workers and their families with internet access and information literacy training, with much of the materials created in North Carolina and available in Spanish.

Estimates put North Carolina’s seasonal and migrant farm workforce at between 80,000 and 100,000 workers. Other estimates suggest that North Carolina is sixth in the nation in terms of migrant labor — with families included there are about 150,000 seasonal residents of North Carolina; the majority speak Spanish as their primary language.

“We, at Laupus Library, believe that internet access should be a human right,” said Jamie Bloss, health sciences liaison librarian and associate professor at ECU. “This research will help us to find ways to close those gaps for the most vulnerable members of our society.”

The grant will provide funding for a library science graduate student to assist with data collection and analysis and another employee to serve as the project manager for the research project, which is necessitated by the sheer number of partnering organizations that have signed up to lend expertise.

This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services LG-2523510OLS-22. Este proyecto ha sido posible en parte por el Instituto de Servicios de Museos y Bibliotecas, LG-2523510OLS-22.