According to Cheptoo Kositany-Buckner, the digital divide is the civil rights issue of the 21st century.
“Having internet access is essential. It’s not a luxury,” she says.
Kositany-Buckner, the deputy director of the Kansas City Public Library, has been working to bridge the digital divide in Kansas City. And the library is the place to do it, she says.
“We provide access to digital content — whether it’s e-books, audio books or research tools you can access online,” says Kositany-Buckner.
There’s more to the library than checking out books and using the computers to get online. It’s a gathering spot for the community -- offering meeting spaces, live concerts, film screenings, story time for infants and kids, video game nights and more.
It’s also a place for civic engagement that’s open to everybody — especially those with opposite views.
“I like to say that libraries are Switzerland,” she says. “We do not necessarily support one view. We support all views and we bring everybody to the table to have these discussions.”
But most importantly, says Kositany-Buckner, it’s a place that promotes reading.
“Reading — even in the 21st century — is still the most essential and important thing that libraries do."
Kositany-Buckner’s passion for digital equality stems, in part, from her mother.
“She was an incredible woman,” she says. “She was always on social missions. She was always out there to empower people, empower children in education and empower women. I get that passion from her.”
Kositany-Buckner grew up in Eldoret, Kenya, as one of eleven children in a wealthy family. They lived on a large ranch; in addition to farming, the family also had a tourism business.
Her family was politically influential. Her dad was the head of the political party in their region. No one in the county would win an election without his support, she says. One brother was married to the daughter of one of Kenya's presidents, another works for the chief-of-staff of the country's current vice president.
Her mother was a women’s organizer. One time, her mother supported a different candidate than her husband — a rarity at the time for an African woman, who was supposed to follow what her husband did.
“She had that much power with the women that all the other men were coming to my father to talk to my mother so that their wives would stop campaigning for the other person,” Kositany-Buckner says. “I’m proud that she was able to do that.”
Because of their political connections, their house was always filled with people.
“I don’t think I was known as Cheptoo. I was just ‘Kositany’s daughter,’” she says. “Everyone knew who you were. You couldn’t get in trouble because dad would get the news very quickly.”
Kositany-Buckner came to the United States in 1983 for college. She followed two of her brothers to Central Missouri State University (now the University of Central Missouri).
Her introduction to Missouri was a bit of a shock. After seeing Chicago, San Francisco and New York depicted in movies, the pastoral setting around Warrensburg was an “eye-opener.” But because of her ranching background, she started to feel at home.
She was one of two women in the IT program at CMSU. After graduation, she became a network administrator at Helzberg Diamonds. Then a job at the library opened up. She started there as a “lowly PC technician.” She’s been with the Kansas City Public Library for 25 years.
One of her goals is to help the KCPL expand internet access at “community hotspots” — either in church basements, public housing or community centers.
Without digital access, she says, you’re left out of so many things — like applying for jobs online.
“From health care, education, social connection, workforce development, government connections … a lot of municipalities are putting information online. So as a citizen, if you on don’t have access, how do you participate? And so it’s very critical."
The KCPL was recently awarded a grant to provide mobile hotspots to kids in the Kansas City School District.
This outreach is crucial, says Kositany-Buckner. Seventy percent of kids in the Kansas City School District don’t have internet access at home, she says, and that creates a major homework gap in a district that’s working hard to bring itself up.
The digital shift makes sense for libraries. As providers of information, books, technology, and DVDs, she says, why not add the internet to this list?
“As a democratic institute, we’ve got to be very careful not to leave a certain population behind,” she says. “As we increase our digital content, we don’t want just the 'Haves' to have access to that content.
“The library is the only place right now … where it doesn’t matter your status in life, whether you’re rich, poor or otherwise. It’s a place that’s still open to the general public, and it’s free.”