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America’s libraries boost broadband access and use—during a pandemic and beyond

By Larra Clark, Deputy Director, Public Library Association and American Library Association Public Policy & Advocacy Office



The Williamsburg (VA) Regional Library put its mobile hotspots on the road at the end of March 2020 when COVID-19 public health restrictions closed the doors to its three physical locations. Working with local schools, the library mapped a schedule of 25 different locations where people were doing community food giveaways, including schools, grocery store parking lots, and dollar-store parking lots. Its two outreach vans were out six days per week, providing internet access in two-hour increments per location. In May they added free printing services.

Cuyahoga County (OH) Public Library reported that county residents logged nearly 30,000 WiFi sessions from their parking lots over two months in the spring. More than 150 libraries applied last spring for a new grant program funded by Microsoft to help rural public libraries boost their WiFi access.

America’s libraries are an indispensable strand in our digital safety net. A March 2020 survey by the Public Library Association, a division of the American Library Association (ALA), found that 93% of respondents have kept their Wi-Fi networks open when their buildings are closed, 44% moved their routers to improve this Wi-Fi access, and more than one in five lend internet hotspots. 

But it’s not just broadband, of course. The McCracken County Public Library in Kentucky doubled the number of kits with laptops and hotspots it lends over the past three years. The Hawkeye Community College Library in Iowa checked out 143 laptops to students to continue their studies online after classes moved online. Library staff reported to the ALA in a May 2020 survey that “this helped some students persist who may not have in this new learning environment.”

In 2019, the Denver (CO) Public Library recorded 63,000 hours of public computer usage, so library director Michelle Jeske knew this need persisted when her buildings were closed. In addition to leaving library WiFi on starting in March, she initiated pop-up laptop access at outdoor locations across the city in August. “It’s really critical,” Jeske, who also serves as PLA president, said in an interview. “(Otherwise) it’s impossible to apply for a job, write a resume, do telemedicine or remote learning…” 

Digital inclusion also encompasses digital skills and meaningful use of broadband-enabled resources and services for education, employment, health, civic engagement, and overall quality of life. Libraries play a role in each of these domains, which is why digital equity is essential to ALA policy advocacy (see related article) and to evolving library practice in our communities, our K-12 schools, and on our college and university campuses.

When people have access to affordable broadband and devices, as well as digital skills, their 100,000 K-12 school, college and public libraries are open online 24/7. Libraries curate and broker free access to high-value e-books, virtual story times, research and homework help, and online classes and certifications. Use of these digital services since the pandemic has vastly expanded.

In May 2020, Sno-Isle Libraries in Washington launched an online pilot program to help 20 people prepare for new careers in information technology (IT). The program provides no-fee access to study materials and covers exam costs for CompTIA A+ certification, a requirement for many entry-level IT jobs. The program also leverages two virtual learning circles of 10 participants each, facilitated by Sno-Isle Libraries staff, study guides, practice exams and more. Libraries staff worked closely with Workforce Snohomish to determine the best certification for high-need sectors in the county.

Collaborations with city and county agencies, non-profit organizations, and philanthropy strengthen essential networks and builds capacity among libraries and other social infrastructure to serve learners and job seekers. Microsoft Philanthropies, for instance, has invested with PLA to expand public library access to hotspots, Wi-Fi, devices and online workforce learning.

From New Mexico pueblos to Minnesota’s Broadband Task Force, library leaders also are making the case for and convening with stakeholders to advance state and local broadband planning and infrastructure improvements. As trusted institutions with great reach, staff deeply knowledgeable of their communities and campuses, and a wide offering of resources for all, libraries are well positioned for collaboration.

This crisis demands action at all levels. Any future economic recovery legislation from Congress should help to expand broadband access and digital inclusion, including through libraries. The Digital Equity Act of 2019 should be re-introduced and expedited to support a diverse array of projects at the state and local level to help close the digital divide. And state and local leaders should include library leaders in planning to address digital inclusion and economic recovery needs.

A 2017 report found that broadband access and digital literacy were the top areas (along with early childhood education) in which local leaders saw libraries playing important roles in advancing community goals. The library community welcomes the opportunity to partner with Next Century City members to leverage library assets to move our communities forward in the difficult months ahead.

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