This year’s Academy Awards were presented against the backdrop of a recent Gallup Poll that shows Americans actually prefer going to a library over a movie theater, by a lot.

The poll for 2019 activity indicated that survey respondents listed library attendance at the top, with 10.5 average visits a year. In contrast, going to a movie at a movie theater was roughly half that amount — 5.3 average visits a year.

This data may be disheartening to Hollywood, but it also suggest an enormous role that public libraries in virtually every U.S. community can play in our nation’s quest for better privacy protection.

Today’s public libraries have broadened significantly beyond circulating books and being available to assist with reference activities. As vital 21st century institutions with continuous public funding, libraries serve as an essential center of equal opportunities for everyone to education and culture.

They usually are well equipped with high-performance computers and fast broadband connections, enabling internet access to anyone who comes in; additionally, they are expanding their collections of digital print and audiovisual materials dramatically, which enables widespread remote online access to anyone with a library card.

At the center of this institutional transformation is a major push, both in terms of programs and personnel, for libraries to promote greater digital literacy.

According to the Public Library Association: “Digital literacy initiatives within local libraries are imperative to helping our patrons create and upload resumes, sign up and use email to communicate with friends and family, download an app to get a ride to the airport, create and edit a presentation to share at work, search for a new doctor online, create a movie online to complete a school project, communicate with a computer technician when their device has issues, and so much more. The minutiae of digital literacy needs are endless and they continue to expand over time.”

The American Library Association reports that nearly 90 percent of libraries offer digital literacy training. Yet such training only is offered by less than 60 percent of libraries in safe online practices and social media use.

This represents what I would term as a Digital Privacy Divide. There now should be a major national effort to enhance teaching digital privacy protection as part of any digital literacy initiative in a public library.

These libraries reach an expansive segment of population across all age and demographic categories. This makes them very well positioned to offer privacy teaching in digital literacy programs, both in brick-and-mortar locations and via remote online access.

And libraries are especially popular with those in the 18-29 age range, which is dominated by digital natives who may be highly adept technologically, but also less concerned about protecting their digital information. The Gallup Poll shows they exceed the already-high average overall numbers for library visits last year.

The public at large also would welcome an initiative for public libraries to help close the Digital Privacy Divide. For example, in the Pew Research Center’s 2015 report, “Libraries at the Crossroads”, 76 percent of survey respondents indicated that libraries “definitely” should offer programs to teach people how to protect their privacy and security online.

A separate Pew Research Center study completed in late 2019 also showed that less than half of all survey respondents correctly noted that privacy policies are contracts between websites and users about how those sites will use their data.

Less than a quarter of survey respondents correctly noted that private browsing only prevents someone using the same computer from seeing one’s online activities.

Taken together, the forces of supply and demand, plus a real digital privacy knowledge gap, comprise a compelling argument for public libraries to more aggressively offer privacy training as part of their digital literacy activities.

Their infrastructure and community reach already are in place, so any additional resources needed for this focused effort only need be incremental.

To be successful, public libraries will need to develop effective marketing campaigns to publicize their privacy protection training, as well. Some may even want to condition issuing a library card, renewing one, or having access to various library services (e.g., remote online access) on the successful completion of digital privacy training.

This initiative can begin as soon as possible. It’s not dependent on the enactment of any comprehensive state or federal privacy legislation, which may not be ratified in the foreseeable future.

And it can create both short-term and long-term positive impacts that result in better privacy protection for broad segments of our population.

They surely would welcome it, grateful if libraries assume a more assertive leadership role in this important ongoing area of public concern.