America's rural libraries may be in the best position to step up against a troubling failing of our technology-oriented society — the digital divide. More than just repositories of books, music, films, and information in general, they also serve as community centers and educational hubs, helping people connect and advance despite the distances between them.
They understand their role and are eager to fill it. What they need are the resources to carry through on it. A unique partnership between the Public Library Association (PLA), Microsoft, TechSoup, and Mobile Beacon — called DigitalLead — is making it happen. And while its beginnings go back to late 2018, much of the program's actualization came in 2020, better known as the Year of the Coronavirus Pandemic. It couldn't have come at a better time.
The Troubling Digital Divide
Even before the pandemic, the gap between the haves and the have-nots in the U.S. when it came to computer and Internet access was troubling. The digital divide has a price: Lack of access to information, benefits, and resources worsens economic inequality and reduces opportunity. While some 21.3 million Americans lacked access in 2019, the divide is particularly pronounced in rural areas, where one-third of all families have no home broadband connection.
How DigitalLead Works
DigitalLead was funded through a $500,000 grant to PLA from Microsoft, which saw public libraries as a logical conduit to the rural communities the tech giant aims to reach through its Airband Initiative. Airband partners with others who have a stake in improving broadband access in communities around the world. PLA engaged TechSoup, which brought information resources and discounted or donated products to the table, and TechSoup connected the initiative to suppliers like Mobile Beacon, which offers mobile hotspots to nonprofits like libraries.
To spread the resources, applications were taken from rural libraries for either hotspot devices (supplied by Mobile Beacon) or desktop and laptop computers so that digital literacy training could be provided to their communities. By late 2019, 21 public libraries had received 158 hotspots to expand their hotspot lending, and 20 had received over 150 computers and laptops. Then came the pandemic, and the initiative was broadened to meet a new need brought on by the coronavirus: helping libraries extend their Wi-Fi signals into public spaces. Quickly, in the summer of 2020, over 80 rural library systems were provided devices for over 160 branch and community locations.
These programs have been game changers. The stories that participants share make the point.
The "Laptop Librarian" Emerges
With eight new laptops, the Martindale (Texas) Community Library has taken its services on the road. A closed building was no barrier to its staff helping to meet a critical need: people in remote areas filling out their census surveys. They also were used in weekly outreach sessions at the city soup kitchen, helping residents learn their way around computers and common programs — and also about the value of the public library. Said Carol Deviney, library director: "The laptops help us open our doors to people who wouldn't normally come to our building and allow us to travel to offer our services. Instead of being a bookmobile librarian, I'll be a laptop librarian — and that's okay with me."
Connecting Students, Remote Workers, Seniors ... and More
The Cuba (New York) Circulating Library, which received both hotspots and the Wi-Fi extender, saw a threefold-plus increase in Wi-Fi use in one month this summer after extending its signal, thanks to the DigitalLead program.
It meant one laid-off resident is more easily able to look for work. A remote worker with no Internet at home uses the library Wi-Fi and checks out a hotspot to take home. Students without a home connection have been doing Zoom classes on the library grounds, and a teacher checks out a hotspot to use in school because the school's Wi-Fi doesn't reach his classroom. And seniors are able to more easily connect with family via the library's service.
As word has spread, two other libraries in the region saw the success of the Cuba library's program and purchased hotspots to expand services for their own patrons.
When a Remotely Working Teacher's Eight-Minute Video Takes an Hour to Load
The business of teaching and learning remotely during a pandemic is that much harder in a rural area where connectivity is limited. One teacher served by the Cordova (Illinois) District Library shared her frustrations with a librarian: Loading even a short, eight-minute video was taking an hour — more if the connection was interrupted. Told that the library had hotspots to loan, the teacher found herself saved. She could upload videos in a mere 10 minutes. She could set up Google Hangouts with students without worries. "Having the hotspot to use for the last six weeks of e-learning made my job doing remote teaching so much easier and with fewer headaches," she reported. Library to the rescue!
Public libraries are among the most important community partners for bridging digital inclusion gaps. When library buildings and their physical resources have been closed due to public health concerns, DigitalLead has extended the reach of libraries beyond their four walls. Free access to computers and broadband within their spaces has been instrumental. But the reality is that "away from home" technology use presents hurdles, particularly in rural communities. That's where hotspot lending programs, with Wi-Fi devices connecting to local cellular networks that can be checked out for a week or two, may have the greatest value.
Setting Up a Hotspot Lending Program
- Nuts and bolts of the program's setup and management. How many devices will be needed? Does the local cellular network support the hotspots, and are there any gaps in coverage? How will the program be funded? How will devices be tracked and integrated into the circulation system? How will success be measured?
- Budget needs. This should encompass what a mobile service provider will charge monthly for data usage; "throttling," or speed changes when data limits are met or exceeded; and miscellaneous costs (like for roaming). Peripheral costs, like for training and lost devices, also need to be considered.
- Who can help? It's key to take help where it can be found. PLA has plenty of resources to tap, and it never hurts to network with other libraries to discover and share challenges and solutions. Think about partnering with other nonprofits, schools, community groups, or relevant businesses.
- Promote the program. Let people know it's available, through social media postings, the library and other community websites, and posters in the library and bookmobile. Local radio has also been surprisingly effective at reaching community members, particularly those not already online.
There are plenty of resources to guide the process of setting the program up, including a comprehensive DigitalLead presentation and compiled resources on the DigitalLead website. The University of Texas at Austin also developed a hotspot lending guide.
The Case for Hotspots and Wi-Fi
In today's tech-driven environment, there's little doubt of the value of hotspot lending programs and Wi-Fi available throughout the community — whatever the service area served. As one library requesting equipment under the DigitalLead program noted, its existing hotspots had two-to-three-week waitlists. When its staff noticed an increase in people outside the library and in its parking lot when the library was closed, that made the case that there was demand for more.
About the Author
Scott G. Allen is deputy director of the Public Library Association, a division of the American Library Association. PLA is the largest association dedicated to supporting the unique and evolving needs of public library professionals. PLA strives to help its members shape the essential institution of public libraries by serving as their indispensable ally. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For further information on PLA initiatives, visit the main PLA web page or follow PLA on Facebook.