Whether we like it or not, access to the internet is becoming increasingly important in our lives, and once embraced, it can open up a world of possibilities. Lesley Tate looks at how libraries are helping people in rural areas to become computer literate.

NAVIGATING the internet with confidence is increasingly important in our everyday lives, from shopping and banking to applying for bus passes and social care issues.

This can particularly be true in rural areas like Craven where the internet can help people to access services that may not be readily available on their own doorsteps and in the old days would require a phone call at the very least, or a long trip into town.

Members of staff at the district’s libraries see this in their daily work with people coming along to use library computers to apply for disabled parking badges or bus passes and to inquire about a range of subjects, including housing, health and social care.

But in the UK 11 million people have no digital skills, and almost two thirds of those are 65 or older. That proportion can be higher in rural areas, which means people can miss out on a quick, easy way to access everything from shopping to leisure to booking adult learning courses or reporting a problem on the road.

For more than 15 years, North Yorkshire County Council’s Adult Learning and Skills Service (ALSS) and Library and Information Service in Craven have helped people get online and bridge the digital divide. Now, they are working together to help people in rural communities get online.

Julie Jones, programme coordinator with the ALSS, said: “Libraries are an ideal venue – already a community hub, and trusted safe space, there are PCs that the public can use and free wi-fi. Staff have plenty of experience of delivering and facilitating IT help.”

John Frankland, service development officer with the library service, added: “As well as providing help with computers, we want the sessions to bring people together. The tone of the sessions is friendly and relaxed, where people can share stories and ideas and support each other over tea and biscuits.”

Cllr Chris Metcalfe, the council's executive member for Library and Information Services, said the sessions not only helped people learn vital internet skills, but got them together.

“Becoming better informed about the internet and how easy it is to access can only benefit people, no matter what their age or circumstances. And the sessions being offered in Craven libraries have the bonus of bringing the opportunity to meet people and make new friends.”

In January, weekly help sessions were launched at Ingleton library. They are open to anyone wanting to ask computing questions, from how to get online or use and iPad to shopping and finding a job. People can drop in and out of sessions as and when they like - there is no issue about signing up for a course. Some sessions will focus on a specific topic with a small group and will range from researching family history to making greetings cards and using the internet safely and effectively.

Carol Mckevitt, a teacher with the ALSS, said: “The Tuesday afternoon session is one the highlights of my week. The environment is relaxed and fun, and people bounce off one another. People are not just learning about computers and the internet, they’re making friends as well.”

Regular attendee Carole Scott said: “It’s fun, very enjoyable. I have a much better appreciation of how my iPad works, and I am less scared of using it than I was.”

Roger Preston, another regular, added: “There is more you can do with computers than I thought. The sessions have opened up the possibilities of what you can do online.”

Library IT volunteer Rick Bamford enjoys the challenge and variety. “It’s given me the confidence to improve my own ICT skills, and I feel a valued member of the community.” Rick feels helping at the sessions bolsters his CV, and hopes it will lead to further volunteering and paid work.

Following the success of the Ingleton sessions, a new drop-in digital skills hub has started at Settle library on Wednesday afternoons. Led by adult learning teacher Rachel Currie, the hub takes the mystery out of computers and the internet. Rachel said: “The sessions will be just as relaxed and fun as the ones at Ingleton library. People can learn at their own pace, and find out about the exciting things you can do using technology.”

All other libraries in Craven offer IT support. At Bentham, on the last Thursday of the month is a computer club, run by Friends of Bentham Library (FoBL). Craven District Councillor and FoBL chair and volunteer Cllr Linda Brockbank said: “It's very low-key, friendly and definitely not technical. Simplicity is the best way to learn and we keep it simple and enjoyable.”

Cross Hills and Skipton libraries also offer regular one-to-one support from IT volunteers.

At Skipton IT Buddies runs on Thursdays, from 2pm to 4pm and on Fridays from 11am to 1pm.

All these sessions are free and friendly and everyone is welcome - all people have to do it contact their library.

Now is an ideal time to get involved, as this week is Get Online Week and will see events take place across the country. In the last decade, the campaign has helped almost 500,000 people discover the benefits of getting online.

Whether you want help making better use of the internet to find work or save money, or support getting a friend or family member online, there’ll be an event near you.