Agency and ageism in the community-based technology support services used by older adults
First Monday

Agency and ageism in the community-based technology support services used by older adults by Noah Lenstra

Many older adults turn to community-based institutions as they learn digital technologies in retirement. In the U.S., these institutions include public libraries and senior centers. A one-year study of technology support services in these spaces finds that older adults adapt services to meet their digital learning and literacy needs. Simultaneously, societal ageism, manifested in institutional policies and practices, hinders the agency of older adults. These findings suggest that community-based technology support services need to transcend ageism and embrace the agency of community elders, who are a growing and important segment of local communities throughout the world.


Review of the literature
Discussion: Older adults contribute to community cyberpower




The first day of October 1991 witnessed the first global celebration of the “International Day of Older Persons.” This United Nations-sponsored event, and similar national and global celebrations, testify to a growing public awareness that in our aging societies we need to do more to recognize and celebrate the diverse roles of our diverse community elders (Annan, 1999). As a result of ageist structures and beliefs, the contributions of older adults in their communities, and in society more generally, are not always acknowledged or respected (Nelson, 2002).

In the United States, two community spaces that sometimes facilitate the digital literacy of older adults are public libraries and senior centers. Generally funded by local government, senior centers emerged in local communities throughout the U.S. after World War II [1]. There are approximately 11,400 senior centers in the U.S. (National Council on Aging, 2014). They have been described as “the one community institution that our independent elderly can identify as theirs” [2]. Research shows that senior centers confront many obstacles as they reconfigure themselves to support the digital literacy of the older adults that participate in them. Investigating how senior centers support digital literacy in New York City, Gardner, et al. (2012) found that:

Technology programming often plays a marginal role (i.e., a service appended to providers’ core competencies such as meals provision and case management and provided through volunteer or non-specialist staff). As a consequence, technology programs are often delivered in fragmented, or ad hoc fashion, and falter due to erratic staffing, inappropriate curriculum, technology breakdowns, poor funding, and limited capacity. [3]

Public libraries occupy similar roles in the lives of American older adults. There are 16,536 public libraries in communities throughout the U.S., that is, buildings identified as public library structures (American Library Association, 2016). Although not historically focused on the needs of older adults, public libraries have over the last decade started focusing on their aging communities (Schull, 2013). For instance, many public libraries have started initiatives to support the digital literacy of older adults [4]. However, research suggests that many public libraries have yet to think about how to serve the older adults that live in their communities (Bennett-Kapusniak, 2013; Charbonneau, 2014; Perry, 2014; Hughes, 2017). For instance, in her survey of public libraries in the New York City and Atlanta metro areas, Perry (2014) found that 50.5 percent of libraries had a staff member designated to coordinate library services for older adults [5]. This type of coordination is even rarer outside urban areas. Hughes (2017) found that in the rural libraries she surveyed, only 18 percent indicated they had a designated staff member to coordinate services to older adults [6].

Through a year-long ethnographic study of technology support services in American senior centers and public libraries, this study found that older adults are not passive consumers of emerging technology support services available in these spaces. Rather, they actively support the community-based institutions in which technology support services emerge, and actively adapt these services to fit into the diverse rhythms of their diverse daily lives.



Review of the literature

A growing corpus of multi-disciplinary research attends to how older adults use, and learn to use, digital technology in their diverse communities. Some scholars have focused on how local communities structure the engagement of older adults in digital society. Others have analyzed how and why older adults participate in virtual communities. Still others show that despite the increased participation of older adults in digital culture, a “grey digital divide” continues to exist. As a result of these continuing digital inequalities, sustained community-based technology support services are critically important for this demographic group. This study contributes to this literature by analyzing how older adults actively adapt and reconfigure technology support services available in public libraries and senior centers.

Older adults learn technology in local communities

Communities help their members learn digital technologies, and thus cross the digital divide (Williams, 2012). Communities consist of individuals engaged in similar or shared practices (Lave and Wenger, 1991) and/or with shared spaces and histories (Veinot and Williams, 2012). A growing number of studies from multiple academic disciplines analyze how older adults learn digital technologies in and through their local communities. Rosson and Carroll (2003) found that digital learning can contribute to bridging generational divides in local communities. Aziz (2009) found that college students in urban Oman are able to mobilize connections to the communities of their youth in order to bring technology support to elderly members of their rural villages. Xie and Jaeger (2008) found that in the U.S. the community spaces of public libraries support older adult digital learning.

More generally, scholars have found that both families and local institutions contribute to the digital learning of older adults. Bowen (2012) found that older adult digital literacy emerges out of “the social networks of expertise distributed among friends and loved ones” [7]. Selwyn (2004) also found that the digital learning of older adults is supported by family and friends of all ages. Hardill (2014), and colleagues involved in the Sus-IT project in the United Kingdom, showed that:

Sustaining digital engagement is linked to the significant, indispensable and crucial ICT support role of (extended) family members, who provide intergenerational support, along with motivational factors, acting as drivers for digital engagement ... . But not all older adults received the help and support needed to become confident users from family members, and for such older adults support from the community, often involving young people, organized formally by neighborhood and community groups is providing a vital resource supporting older people sustain their use of digital technologies. [8]

In their research on older adults using cybercafés in Jamaica, Bailey and Ngwenyama (2011) also illustrated that through participating in these intergenerational public computing spaces, older adults both learn new technologies and also feel more connected to their local community.

Other scholars analyze how digital technologies are appropriated into spaces populated primarily by older adults. Sperazza, et al. (2012) and Linton (2012) found that the cultures of retirement communities shape how residents there use digital technologies. Gardner, et al. (2012) found that technology support services in senior centers help older adults form new friendships and social ties in old age. Chang, et al. (2012) found that a nursing home in Taiwan shaped the implementation of an eHealth pilot at that facility. Sayago and Blat (2010) conducted a longitudinal ethnographic study of computer labs located in senior centers. They found that older adults adapt these spaces to how they want to use technology. Kok, et al. (2012) show that the cultures of an assisted living facility in the U.S. and a senior center in China shaped how older adults in these two spaces used Skype to communicate across national boundaries. These findings illustrate how digital technologies are learned by older adults in diverse local communities.

Older adults participate in virtual communities

Another stream of research focuses on how older adults participate in virtual communities. Harley, et al. (2016) find that the existing place-based social networks embedded in a local community in the south of England facilitated how older adults participate in an online community. Xie (2005) identified similar patterns in her comparative study of older adults participating in virtual communities in the U.S. and in China. Ito, et al. (2001) also found that older adults adapt virtual communities to meet their needs. In a study of a virtual community used by older Japanese adults, Kanayama (2003) found that the peer-to-peer support formed among older adults using this virtual space is important because it enabled them to learn technology together “without experiencing fears or discouragement” [9] they sometimes experienced in intergenerational settings.

In discussions of how older adults participate in virtual communities, attention has focused in particular on how older adults participate with others online. Xie, et al. (2012) found that many older adults prefer the more private space of e-mail to the more public space of social media. Sayago and Blat (2010) also found that older adults prefer e-mail. Bloch and Bruce (2011) came to similar conclusions. On the other hand, a growing percentage of older adults in the U.S. now use social networking sites on a regular basis (Smith, 2014). In more recent work, Waycott, et al. (2013) found that even those in the “oldest old” group (aged 85 and older) enjoy expressing themselves online in public virtual communities. In past research (Lenstra, 2014a; 2014b), I also found that older adults enjoy creating and sharing content on social media, such as Facebook [10]. This evidence suggests that given the right conditions older adults are as capable and as willing to creatively participate in virtual communities as any other demographic group.

The “grey digital divide” continues because of digital disengagement

Nonetheless, other scholars have shown that a “grey digital divide” continues to exist. In other words, despite gains, older adults continue to use technology at rates substantially lower than the general population (Smith, 2014). Scholars who study the exclusion of older adults in the information society have coined the term, “grey digital divide,” to encapsulate this social fact. Brabazon (2005) compared the grey digital divide in Australia to the United Kingdom. Millward (2003) studied the obstacles older adults at a British senior center cope with as they learn technology. Lam and Lee (2006) analyzed how and why older adults in Hong Kong choose to not use public computing facilities.

Recent research on what has been called “digital disengagement” among older adults suggests that the grey digital divide may persist for some time to come (Olphert and Damodaran, 2013). The concept of digital disengagement adds a temporal dimension to the digital divide literature. In 2004, a British Digital Inclusion Panel stated that there is a:

Real risk that in the medium to long term significantly more citizens will migrate from being digitally engaged to being unengaged than the other way round. [11]

Olphert and Damodaran (2013) found that digital disengagement occurs among older people throughout the United Kingdom, and possibly elsewhere around the world. Digital disengagement occurs when older people who lack opportunities to continue learning new technologies, stop using technology. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some providers of technology support services in the U.S. are also becoming aware of this phenomenon. A computer center located in a senior center in Greensboro, North Carolina, states on its Web site that:

Our computer learning center was launched in 1996 with the intent of teaching computer basic usage to adults who were just entering the technology world. Now we are focused on “keeping up” with changes and challenges of advancing technology and tools (Shepherd’s Center, 2016).

This quote vividly illustrates how crossing the “grey digital divide” is a longitudinal task, requiring older adults to continually learn new technologies as they emerge in order to be full participants in digital society.

More research is needed to understand how local communities support and structure the digital learning practices of their older members. This study adds to existing literature on this topic by foregrounding the agency of older adults in the technology support services they use. Supporting the agency of older adults in community-based technology support services may enable the development of more robust services able to deal with the challenge of “digital disengagement” among aging populations.




To study older adult digital learning in a community-based context, I over a one-year period studied three public libraries and three senior centers that offer technology support services that are used by older adults. The specific methods used were: 467.5 hours of participant observation (i.e., ethnographic fieldwork) with 209 older adults; 54 interviews with older adults who participate in these services; seven interviews with staff responsible for these services; and a review of documents about these institutions (Table 1). All names that appear in this text are pseudonyms used to protect the privacy of participating individuals and institutions.

Drawing on Williams’s (2012) study of technology learning in public libraries, this study closely attended to the community-based processes and structures that shape how older adults learn technology over time. Data collection occurred from September 2014 to August 2015. The administrators of these institutions allowed me to conduct research there because I offered services to them. Similarly, older adults allowed me to study them because I was serving both them and their communities. At three public libraries, I participated in technology volunteer programs managed by librarians. At senior centers, I helped staff administer drop-in computer classes. At the end of fieldwork, I presented preliminary findings to a gathering of senior center and public library staff, as well as to older adults themselves.


Table 1: Time spent in the field, and older adult interviewees, by site.
 Time spent in the fieldOlder adults interviewed
Tubman Senior Center127 hours17
Smith Senior Center62 hours5
Metro Senior Center66 hours12
Metro Library62 hours3
Main Library92.5 hours13
Branch Library58 hours4
All467.5 hours54


The findings emerged through a situated understanding of the institutions and of their roles in the communities in which they are embedded. Fieldwork spanned an entire year, enabling me to situate the findings in both space and time (Blomberg and Karasti, 2013; Suchman, 1987). This in-depth and up-close ethnographic analysis of how people learn technologies in a naturalistic social setting reveals how people and institutions incorporate technology into daily life (Hutchins, 1995; Nardi, 1996; Nardi and O’Day, 1999). Lenstra (2016) includes more information on these methods, and on the philosophy behind them.




This study found that older adults actively adapt and reconfigure the community spaces of public libraries and senior centers. However, the agency of older adults is not always respected or acknowledged by staff and institutional structures. Ageist policies render older adults and their expertise invisible, especially in relation to technology support services. Nevertheless, older adults adapt and tweak these services as they use them to learn new technologies. This finding leads to a discussion of alternative modes of providing technology support services, which may with support, and with additional research, become more prevalent in the future.

Part 1: Older adults actively create, adapt, and adopt community spaces

Older adults organized together, and older adults organized with other sectors of their local communities, helped to create, and continue to lead, advocate for, and shape public libraries and senior centers. All six of the institutions studied formed out of independent community groups. These community groups created the structure and momentum for emergence of these public institutions (Table 2). Older adults participated actively in, and sometimes led, these community groups; they played a particularly important role in the community groups that led to the creation of senior centers.

Older adults created senior centers by organizing for equal public services against an ageist narrative that rendered them, and their experiences, invisible. All three senior centers grew out of multi-purpose, multi-generational community centers that, in practice, focused primarily on the needs of local youth. Older adults frequented these spaces because they too needed (and need) public space. A newspaper article on the Tubman Community Center from 1971 quotes a leader of the Tubman Seniors group stating that “we have all ages — 8 to 80 — crammed into this building. And when the youngsters arrive hollering and screaming, sometimes the senior citizens have to cut their activities short.” This leader goes on to discuss how older adults feel pushed out of the building as young people enter and take it over. Similar tensions led to the creation of the other two senior centers I studied. Older adults organized themselves to insist on being visible in their communities. They pressured local government to allocate financial resources for the creation of senior centers where they could decide what to do.


Table 2: Dates in which public institutions and affiliated community groups emerged.
 Community group startedPublic institution emerged
Tubman Senior Centerca. 19631978
Smith Senior Centerca. 19651978
Metro Senior Centerca. 19671976
Metro Libraryca. 18651874
Main Library18681876
Branch Library19481972


Organized together and with other sectors of their communities, older adults continue to struggle for robust public services in both senior centers and public libraries. At senior centers, older adults continue to organize themselves in membership-based groups. These groups keep the centers going. At public libraries, older adults are a central part of Friends of the Library groups and of community advisory committees. These groups assist and provide oversight to public libraries. Through participation in these groups, older adults provide public libraries and senior centers with the community mobilization and advocacy needed to maintain and expand their funding and services.

Groups of older adults adapt technology support services

Through their communities of practice (e.g., senior center community groups), older adults adapt technology support services. Senior centers are group-based institutions. One joins a senior center and then becomes part of the group. The presence of group-based communities of practice in senior centers can be seen in the fact that older adults are more than three times as likely to socialize while using technology support services there, compared to public libraries (Table 3). At Metro and Tubman Senior Centers, older adults socialized together while using technology during 94 percent and 78 percent of field sessions, respectively. At Smith Senior Center, 42 percent of field sessions featured older adults socializing [12]. This type of socializing while participating in technology support services is much rarer at public libraries. At public libraries the norm is for the individual patron to use library technology by themselves, only talking when asking a librarian or a volunteer a question.


Table 3: Older adult socializing in technology support services, by site.
 Percentage of field sessions in which older adults socialized while using technologyNumber of field sessions
Metro Senior Center94%22
Tubman Senior Center78%127
Smith Senior Center42%31
Main Library14%37
Metro Library13%21
Branch Library3%29


In contrast, newcomers to senior centers learn they are expected to become part of the group while participating in technology support services. In March 2015 a man who had recently retired from a blue-collar job at the university started coming to technology support services at Tubman Senior Center. He came back 27 times during fieldwork. In an interview he stated:

You know, when I first came I didn’t know what to expect ... . So, I got here and everyone was talking. Everyone seemed to know everyone, and they were talking about things, like, you know, growing older [laughs]. And that one guy, he said he worked for the university, in my unit! I didn’t know him. I don’t think our times overlapped. But, we knew a lot of the same people. And, we talked. And it was great, you know, making that connection. It really helped me feel like this is a place I could belong ... . This place is really welcoming to everyone.

In this quote, the man reveals the process by which he moved from being a peripheral participant to a full member in this community through participation in technology support services.

Those already part of the group refresh and reinforce membership while participating in technology support services. Two older men participated in more than 50 field sessions at Tubman Senior Center. The two asked questions about how to do things with their digital devices, while also socializing together about their lives and experiences. Visits to senior centers for technology support services overlap with social visits to the center. At Smith Senior Center older adults often came to the computer lab for a few minutes after another program ended, such as a potluck or a game of cards. Others would come to the computer lab and then stay around the center until another program began.

The expectation of being part of the group extends to technology helpers. Older adults invite volunteers to join them at their potlucks. Older adults also invite volunteers to their homes, and to other events in their lives. At Tubman Senior Center one of the regular participants in technology support services is an older musician in his late 70s. He formed a strong relationship with one volunteer. This relationship was strengthened when this volunteer and her husband attended one of the musician’s concerts. Similarly, when the staff director at Tubman Senior Center got engaged, he invited the Tubman Seniors to his engagement party, saying, “You are all my family.” He later held his wedding reception at the senior center.

Although more common in senior centers, groups of older adults using technology support services together also emerges in public libraries. On Tuesday mornings an informal group of three or four older women meets at Metro Library to get coffee, catch up with each other’s lives, look at new books, and use library computers. They go to the computers together and quietly discuss some of the things they look at. Occasionally one of the women will ask a librarian for help, but usually they work together on their own.

Collaborative technology learning in senior centers

In some, but not all, cases the incorporation of technology support services into senior center groups led to the development of collaborative learning of technology among older adults. Table 4 shows that Metro Senior Center had both the highest level of socializing among older adults using technology (94 percent) and the highest level of older adults helping each other with technology. During 89 percent of field sessions at Metro Senior Center, older adults helped each other with technology. At no other institutions was collaborative learning so common. During 20 percent of the field sessions at Tubman Senior Center, and 19 percent of the field sessions at Smith Senior Center, older adults helped each other with technology. At the public libraries, less than 10% of field sessions found older adults helping each other with technology.

The reason that Metro Senior Center nurtured such high levels of collaborative technology learning among older adults relates to the history of technology support services there. At all the institutions except Metro Senior Center, technology support services were organized around the structure of one-to-one teaching and learning. In this structure, a staff member or a volunteer would assist an older adult learning technology. At Metro Senior Center, on the other hand, technology support services were instead started with the idea that older adults could help other older adults learning technology. During announcements for the program at the monthly potluck, the director of the senior center said that older adults could receive assistance from volunteers, but they could also come and help each other.


Table 4: Collaborative learning among older adults, by site.
 Percentage of field sessions in which older adults socialized while using technologyPercentage of field sessions in which older adults helped each other with technologyNumber of field sessions
Metro Senior Center94%89%22
Tubman Senior Center78%20%127
Smith Senior Center42%19%31
Main Library14%8%37
Metro Library13%6%21
Branch Library3%0%29


Nevertheless, collaborative learning among older adults did not spontaneously start taking place at Metro Senior Center. It needed support. When I came to the senior center to help in their program, I found older adults patiently waiting for me in silence. It was only after I arrived that older adults got out their digital devices and started asking questions. After they had asked me questions, they started talking amongst themselves, and eventually started helping one another. The older adults only felt comfortable helping each other with technology when an officially designated “technology helper” was in the room that they could turn to if and when obstacles arose. One participant said that she liked knowing that I was there in case they needed someone to “bail us out if we get in over our heads [Laughs].”

Part 2: Ageism and agency in technology support services

The collaborative learning of technology among older adults is fragile because of societal ageism. The agency and expertise of older adults is not always respected, or even acknowledged, by the staff and administrators responsible for these institutions, and even by the older adults themselves. Ageism appears in policies that favor young tutors for older learners, and in institutional structures that render older adults invisible. Nonetheless, despite institutional invisibility, older adults exert their agency in technology support services in multiple ways. This process is illustrated in the example of older adults forming relationships with technology helpers, despite policies and practices that discourage this type of behavior.

Young tutors for older learners

All six institutions rely on young university students as technology volunteers, a structure that reinforces the idea that young people are the natural technology tutors for old people. This reinforcement is illustrated in one older woman’s discussion of why she does not help other older adults with technology outside of technology support services at Metro Senior Center:

I’m old! They [other older adults] don’t want help from me! I get by with technology ... . And if I get stuck I can figure it out. Usually. [Laughs] When it works it works. But when it doesn’t. [Laughs] Help someone else here at the center? No, no, no. That is for you [young people] to do. You know this stuff in and out. What could I add?

Despite being highly competent with technology, this woman did not feel comfortable sharing her expertise with others because of her age.

The structure of relying on young technology tutors for older adults leads to bottlenecks when the number of older adults seeking support far exceeds the number of young people available to assist. During an average technology support service at Tubman Senior Center, five older adults participate. In contrast, on average only two volunteers are available. Since older adults are socialized by the structure of the technology support services, and by society more generally, to seek support from a young person, this situation leads to bottlenecks in which the supply of volunteers does not meet the demand. On especially busy days, when up to 10 people came in for support from only two people, help sessions devolved into chaos as volunteers rushed from person to person, trying to make sure everyone received at least some support during the hour. In contrast, on a slow day at Smith Senior Center only one older adult participated. She exclaimed “Thank God I have you to myself today!” I heard similar remarks at other senior centers, and at public libraries, when, on slow days, older adults did not feel that they had to compete for the time of young technology volunteers.

Reliance on university students limits the volunteer pool at all six institutions. As a result, the sites continually cope with the challenge of not having enough volunteers available to support all the individuals seeking assistance with technology. In response to these problems, two of the libraries have begun thinking more broadly about who can help people with technology in the library. One of the libraries was willing to accept into their technology volunteer program any volunteer who has skills to share. The result of this more open policy is that two recently retired individuals now volunteer once a week at Main Library to help patrons with technology. One of these individuals, a man in his early 60s, stated that:

For me, it is just a way to give back. I used technology all the time on the job [as a paralegal professional.] On my job, you know, I just saw the need. I saw people needing help with technology. So I was looking for ways to give back when I retired and I saw that here at Main Library one way you can help the library is to help people with computers. So I decided that was for me. [13]

Unfortunately, individuals such as this man are rare. During fieldwork I found that almost all volunteers at all six sites were young people in their 20s. These volunteers are favored by staff, and the university is the only place where staff actively recruit volunteers. Other individuals are allowed to volunteer, but they are not actively encouraged to do so. This ageist policy reinforces the idea that older people should turn to younger people for help with technology, and not to each other.

Disregarding the agency of older adults

In the past, older adults led many aspects of these institutions, particularly in senior centers. However, as senior centers became institutionalized, bureaucratic procedures were implemented by over pressured staff to cope with the challenges of administering these complex institutions. As a result of this trend, the roles of older adults in shaping these institutions has over time become less pronounced. This is particularly so in technology support services, where older adults are not included in planning or administration.

Starting in 1984, technology support services began to emerge in these institutions, first in public libraries, and later, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, in senior centers. Technology support services have included: access to computers and other digital technologies, access to wifi, and access to individuals willing to help members of the public use technology. The primary agents involved in the creation and evolution of technology support services have been external: the local university; local, state and federal government; and local businesses, as well as the staff and administration of these institutions. Despite their leadership in the foundation and maintenance of these community spaces, in the context of technology support services older adults are positioned as passive service recipients.

Ageism shapes these dynamics. When older adults are visible in the sites, ageism often shapes their institutional portrayal. At the public libraries studied the only services explicitly for older adults are a) homebound delivery services; b) assistive technologies in the computer lab; and, c) partnerships with retirement communities. All three services frame older adulthood as a time of disability and decline. It is of course important that public libraries serve the disabled and the shut-in, but to conflate these situations with older adulthood is ageist.

Ageist attitudes also sometimes lead staff to discontinue programs that are popular among older adults. At Smith Senior Center the director complained that older adults use the computer lab for what she sees as trivial purposes. Discussing why technology support services were discontinued there before I started my fieldwork, she stated that “just a few people used the technology, and they mostly just wanted to look up trivia for things like crossword puzzles. It just wasn’t worth our time to continue the program.” That is, she and other staff in the park district decided that what older adults were doing with the senior center’s computer lab was not important enough to support and foster. A similar incident occurred at Metro Library when the Computers 101 class was discontinued in December 2014, despite being very popular and widely used among older adults. In both cases, ageist assumptions about the digital literacy of older adults led to the cessation of technology support services used by older adults.

These institutions also cope with the many responsibilities they have by implementing bureaucratic procedures that limit the agency of older adults. As older adults seek support learning technology in their community, they navigate a complex set of rules that vary from institution to institution, such as time limits on computers and the changing schedules of technology support services. Older adults navigate these bureaucracies as individuals seeking help, not as agents in their communities ready and able to shape, adapt, and lead technology support services.

The agency of older adults in technology support services

Nonetheless, despite the presence of institutional structures that disregard their agency, older adults do in fact successfully adapt these technology support services to meet their needs. Changes emerge in technology support services through the complex give-and-take that characterizes daily interactions in these institutions. Older adults do not simply utilize services created for them. They actively adapt them to meet their needs. Through these negotiations and struggles, rules change, and new policies and practices emerge.

As individuals, older adults exert their agency by trying, and sometimes succeeding, to form supportive, sustained relationships with technology volunteers. Older adults rely on these relationships to learn technology across time. At Main Library an older man referred to one of the technology volunteers as “the one I always go to for help. She knows what I need.” Similar relationships form at all six institutions.

One of the reasons why older adults develop strong relationships with particular technology helpers is that it takes time to identify someone willing and able to provide them with the ongoing technology support they need to learn technology over time. Once such an individual is found, older adults return to them over and over again. At Branch Library, one staff member (whose official job title is children’s librarian) said that for the last two years she has worked with an older woman who comes in every Monday afternoon to work with her to learn to use the computer:

I can’t even remember how that started! She was just coming in all the time asking questions, and I guess after a while we just kind of settled into that routine. Now I know to leave some time on Monday afternoon free because I know she will be in with more questions [laughs].

This relationship developed because the older adult insisted on it, not because it was part of the librarian’s job responsibilities to form relationships such as this one.

Unfortunately, these relationships are not always supported or nurtured by the institutions in which they form. Staff at Metro Library stated that these relationships emerge very regularly, but that problems arise when a favored volunteer leaves and the older adult becomes frustrated at having to start over with a new person. As a result of this problem, the library is trying to make technology support services more anonymous. To achieve this goal, Metro Library has decided not to give volunteers name tags; technology volunteers simply wear a badge that says “volunteer” on it. Nonetheless, older adults continue to endeavor to form intimate, close relationships with technology volunteers. The library wants technology support services to operate in one way, what Durrance (1983) criticizes as the “anonymous professional-client encounter” [14], while the older adults want them to operate in a different, more intimate way. Older adults do not simply accept the services as they are created by staff, but actively tweak and adapt them to meet their needs.



Discussion: Older adults contribute to community cyberpower

This paper concludes with an empirically-based discussion of how older adults contribute to creating spaces that add to what Williams and Alkalimat (2008) call cyberpower. In these spaces, everyone’s agency is acknowledged and appreciated, and through this collective agency the community can powerfully use new technologies to instantiate social change. This discussion suggests an alternative mode of operation different from the dominant trends identified in this study. The seeds of this mode are already present in the sites studied, suggesting that with support, and with additional research, they could become more prevalent. They represent a different, and possibly better, way to think about older adults, technology, and the society in which we live.

Staff who have not fully become socialized into the professional norms of the institutions sometimes develop innovative techniques that nimbly respond to the needs of users. For instance, despite official limits on how much time librarians can spend helping patrons learning technology, at Main Library a library technician — significantly, not a full librarian — always supports patrons on their personal devices in whatever form they want, for however long they want, whenever she works at the adult services desk.

In another case, one part-time employee of the park district who worked at Tubman Senior Center for six months spontaneously started supporting the Tubman Senior Center’s quilting group with their smartphones. As they quilt, these women sometimes use their smartphones to show each other things they have found online, and so the part-time employee offered assistance to the women, especially with iPhones, which was the device she owned. Unfortunately, in April 2015, the employee left the senior center, and her practices were not institutionalized. Her replacement did not continue the tradition of offering technology support to the quilters; technology support was not part of her job, so she did not provide it. Nonetheless, through transgressive actions like these, limits are broken and new forms of technology support services may emerge.

Staff and volunteers also sometimes learn technology alongside older adults, in the process flattening the hierarchies of “learner” and “helper,” “young” and “old.” One volunteer, a young university student, discussed a technology support session she had with an older adult at one of the libraries: “When she shared her method for creating and remembering passwords. I wrote it down and thanked her multiple times for the tip! It was really great ... . We hugged at the end.” Through this emotive encounter, the older adult learned that they have digital wisdom they can share with young people, and the young student learned that older adults can teach them new things about technology.

Another counter tendency to the dominant trend occurs when older library staff support older patrons with technology. At Metro Library an older woman came to the adult services desk and started chatting with a librarian, who was herself an older adult who had retired from the local university and now works part-time as a reference librarian. During their conversation, the two older women discussed the frustrations they have had trying to stay up-to-date with phones. The librarian shared with the patron some of the tips she has used to learn to use her new smartphone. At Main Library a similar interaction took place between an older library technician (who retired mid-way through fieldwork) and an older patron. These examples illustrate how the aging library workforce (Davis, 2009) could in fact play a pivotal role in changing ageist attitudes through participation in technology support services.




This study showed that older adults adapt community-based technology support services to the diverse rhythms of their community lives. Despite ageist structures and policies, older people are active agents in their local communities. The older adults here studied do not need (or particularly want) informatics solutions applied to them. Rather, they want the sustained support that will enable them to continue to powerfully contribute to, and participate in, their communities as they age.

The older adults, staff, and volunteers that collectively compose technology support services could productively work together to learn how to powerfully participate in the still emergent information society. In this alternative mode of operation, illustrated empirically in this study, everyone learns technology together. This alternative tendency emerges in part through the struggles of older adults. More research is needed to understand to what extent and how these different tendencies structure technology support services provided in other places, with other populations. Nonetheless, the findings of this study do suggest that supporting and nurturing the agency of older adults, and actively working to combat ageist representations of older adults using technology, is a viable way to create more powerful, and effective, community-based technology support services for people of all ages. End of article


About the author

Noah Lenstra is an assistant professor of Library and Information Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His research in the field of community informatics considers the roles of libraries, archives, and museums as community institutions in the digital age. He received his Ph.D. in library and information science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in June 2016.
E-mail: njlenstr [at] uncg [dot] edu



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10. This study was prompted by my past work with older adults in community-based digital heritage initiatives (Lenstra, 2014a; 2014b). In those projects I found that older adults do not simply use services created for them by others, but they actively adapt and reconfigure these services to meet their diverse and evolving needs.

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12. The lower frequency of socializing at Smith Senior Center relates to the fact that the computer lab was smaller, having only two regular desktop computers (and one special computer with assistive software and peripherals), and thus on some occasions only one older adult participated at a time.

13. Main Library states that volunteers can assist in, among other things, “helping computer users at the library.”

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Editorial history

Received 22 February 2017; revised 12 July 2017; accepted 21 July 2017.

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This paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Agency and ageism in the community-based technology support services used by older adults
by Noah Lenstra.
First Monday, Volume 22, Number 8 - 7 August 2017

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