With Christi Buker, Executive Director, Pennsylvania Library Association
Can you tell me more about the Pennsylvania Library Association?
Part of what we do is represent all types of libraries – school libraries, as well as public libraries, and academic libraries. That’s important, because it is a whole connection point that different libraries are doing activities to help bring access to residents.
We advocate for libraries to receive more funding, and a big part of what their funding is focused on during COVID-19 is helping communities have access to the internet with the number of schools that are doing online learning, hybrid learning, and families and adults that are working from home regardless of whether or not they have school-aged children. They are trying to provide internet access support.
Pennsylvania is oftentimes looked at as highly-populated and well-defined, but we have significant rural areas in Pennsylvania that do not have strong internet access. So part of what the Association is doing is helping our libraries, particularly public libraries find ways to strengthen their internet, their equipment, and their technology knowledge, because in many of our smaller libraries, whether they’re rural or not, there is very lean staffing, and sometimes the library director might be working as the only full-time staff person in the building. That library director might be wearing the hat as director, the IT person, as well as the maintenance person or sometimes serving as a children’s librarian, so their technology knowledge is not always robust.
We’re trying to give them knowledge, access to funding to do this, access to additional resources, because we realize libraries can’t do this alone, but can be a key community support because many people come for different reasons. Wi-Fi is a big reason. If you don’t have computers at home, having those desktops or laptops. Being able to print — many young adults in particular do not bother with buying a printer for the one or two times a year that they may need to print something for a job application or a credential.
Libraries are doing a lot of different things and the Association is here to support them.
How has the work of the Association been impacted by COVID-19, especially on the ground with local libraries?
One of the struggles for Pennsylvania libraries is funding in general. COVID-19 impacted us in Pennsylvania where our state legislature passed most budget items. They fully funded K-12 and higher education budget lines, but they did not fund our library line, so we’re a little bit concerned about library funding for the future. The legislature in November will be working on the remaining seven months of the budget, as they only passed five months worth of our budget. So we do not know if we’re going to get all of the money we’re supposed to. COVID is making it stressful on the money side, but that also includes our staffing.
What libraries are doing in COVID-19 is they’ve developed all new services. Libraries across the country are doing this. This is not unique to Pennsylvania. It was a whole new way of doing business — doing what we call curbside delivery for any physical library materials requested. If it wasn’t curbside, it was called “lobby pickup” or “grab-and-go”.
On the technology side, a lot of libraries purchased additional mobile hotspots and tried to purchase additional Chromebooks, but as you can imagine the competition with students who are working at home now, procurement was a real problem in the beginning. We’re seeing some of that let up.
One of the other things that libraries have worked on, particularly in our rural areas, is expanding Wi-Fi outside the building. Pre-COVID libraries had to keep their Wi-Fi within the building, because of E-Rate regulations. But now during COVID, they are working to expand the Wi-Fi access, so that if somebody is in a parking lot at the library, they can access the Wi-Fi, because the buildings have been closed or have limited access. Some of the buildings are strictly by appointment right now. Some are fully opened, but have capacity limits depending on the outbreak levels in their areas.
What is the Association looking forward to for 2021?
I am excited that libraries are being considered as part of the deployment by both the Governor as well as the Office of Commonwealth Libraries for internet access. Sometimes libraries have been overlooked with how we do connect with the communities, but libraries are super important. Internet access is not always affordable for everyone, and even if you can afford it, there are so many rural spots where it’s not there. So the legislature has a joint task force on broadband and I share that because NCC members probably understand that there are different definitions for what broadband is versus internet access. It’s frightening when there are areas where broadband is 1.5 Mbps and you can barely do anything.
Very excited that Pennsylvania has the resource of Pennsylvania State University who is leading the charge on documenting what internet speeds are actually out there. It really is frightening that we don’t have better internet in so much of Pennsylvania, even just outside major metropolitan areas. Those last mile connectivity impacts are important.
There is an awareness of the need by the Governor and the legislature that we lack sufficient broadband in a lot of Pennsylvania. COVID-19 brought it to the forefront. Libraries have realized that they are more than just the building,and COVID-19 made that very clear. We did a brief survey for a program that we were going to run online for library leadership. Roughy 25% of our libraries responded, and only 56% of the library directors who participated said that they had a laptop provided by the library. This information is pushing us to accommodate digital needs. 78% of the respondents did not have mobile hotspots.
There were some libraries doing community outreach, but with physical materials, and they realized the importance of mobile hotspots, where just one hotspot could help connect ten devices. This is especially important in our unserved and underserved communities.
The need for technology in libraries is huge here in Pennsylvania. It’s sad though. One library director indicated that they had to apply for a paycheck protection loan for their library with a cellphone. That doesn’t cut it. The silver lining is the awareness is out there, but we definitely have a long way to go.
Are libraries looking to reassess their staffing needs considering the increased digital technology demand?
Yes. We’ve been grateful for our relationship with an association called KINBER. They are an educational research network and they do community outreach. They worked to have fiber connectivity across Pennsylvania with a lot of our universities. They put us in touch with ITDRC, which is an all-volunteer charitable organization that works during disasters. They identify COVID as a disaster. They come in and help install equipment, typically after hurricanes or floods. They worked with a lot of our libraries in north west parts of Pennsylvania that are rural to put in outdoor Wi-Fi hotspots to expand internet access for those communities.
Are universities working with their surrounding communities to try to get them connected?
Absolutely. In particular community colleges are really pushing for internet access for their students. Indiana University of Pennsylvania, they are in a rural area, put out a map highlighting where Wi-Fi is strongest on campus. This is helpful because they have a lot of commuter students.
Did you know ?: Public computers inside libraries were used for 5,181,361 internet sessions. Inside libraries, the WiFi was used for an additional 9,387,071 internet sessions. That’s a pretty hefty use of internet!