Closing branches for a spell when the pandemic hit amplified how much some people, students and adults alike, depended on public libraries for internet and digital access. Through hotspot programs, and even lending out laptops to patrons, libraries have tried to help close digital gaps that exist in their communities.
In a release last week, the Kansas City Public Library said it plans to purchase 1,200 Chromebooks with built-in 4G digital speed and 300 hotspots with unlimited data to supplement its current program with the $853,212 it received from the Emergency Connectivity Fund. The ECF is an initiative included in the American Rescue Plan Act (APRA) that Congress approved in the spring.
The computer has the same cellular capability as a smartphone, Carle explained, and the hotspots can be hooked up to a computer and are like having a wireless network that can be carried anywhere.
“The pandemic really showed, when everyone was asked to go home, there was a huge inequity that came to the forefront,” said Melissa Carle, Kansas City Public Library’s director of information services. “There’s a huge amount of population that didn’t have access to the outside world. And Kansas City, we were not alone with that.
Before the pandemic, public libraries were many people’s regular source of digital access, with computers and internet available to help some citizens accomplish myriad important tasks.
The Kansas City Public Library, which has branches in Sugar Creek and on 23rd Street in western Independence, recently received more than $850,000 in Emergency Connectivity federal funds to boost its laptop and hotspot lending program. Last year, Mid-Continent Public Library received $82,000 in federal CARES Act funds to purchase mobile hotspots for its patrons, and it’s also received other grants and community fundraising toward more laptops and hotspots for lending.
Exactly how much the various KCPL branches will receive is to be determined, but Carle said, “Our intention is to put them into every branch, and we also have the bookmobile.
“That’s why we were so large with our request,” she said. “The goal would be to always keep something on the shelf in every branch.”
The library system has about 750 active machines (desktop and laptop computers) for patrons, Carle said, so the ECF grant will allow them to nearly triple that availability. The library also has a couple hundred hotspots already available for cardholding patrons and community partners to borrow, including from the library’s bookmobile. “These were programs we started in the middle of pandemic, in response to a community need,” said Talia Evans, library spokesperson. Mid-Continent Public Library launched its hotspot lending program in mid-February. Since then, library staff said, library members have made more than 2,400 checkouts of hotspots across the various branches.
Also in the ECF award list, the Independence School District received $126,000 for broadband services. The funds for libraries and schools nationwide, Jessica Rosenworcel, acting chairperson of the Federal Communications Commission, said in a release, “will make a major dent in closing one the cruelest parts of the digital divide.” “Public libraries are inclusive in who we serve; we are for the public benefit,” Carle said. “If you have a library card you are eligible. And if you don’t have a card, we can help you get one.”