Bridging the Opportunity Divide

Soon You Can ‘Check Out’ the Internet Along with Your Library Book

July 1, 2014
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Soon You Can ‘Check Out’ the Internet Along with Your Library Book
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
New York and Chicago libraries are serving up residents with WiFi hotspots.

New York and Chicago public library systems are getting a digital upgrade. Armed with nearly $1 million in grant funding, the two once-considered antiquated institutions are ramping up services by loaning out Internet to locals much like a library book.

The Knight Foundation awarded both the New York Public Library (NYPL) and the Chicago Public Library as a part of the annual News Challenge, which invites innovators to create solutions that enhances free expression on the Internet. The Chicago Public Library (CPL) received $400,000 for its “Internet to Go” pilot and the New York Public Library received $500,000 for the “Check Out the Internet” project. The two were among 19 winners this year that received a total of $3.4 million in grants.

New York’s well-worn library serves about 40 million walk-in visitors each year, according to New York Public Library President Tony Marx, and an estimated 27 percent of households are without access to Internet. To help patrons who rely on the physical library for access to computers, library officials decided to tap into a digital resource to extend services beyond business hours.

“People are sitting on our stoop to get leaked broadband,” Marx said. “And that’s when a light went off for us that said ‘No, we’ve got to do better than this.’”

NYPL will let patrons “check out” WiFi hotspots for up to one year at a time and is partnering with local initiatives to distribute the equipment including tech training classes, English as a Second Language (ESL) courses and other educational programs.

Last month NYPL launched a smaller scale pilot, dispersing 100 devices in four library branches, and officials are already amassing data on how patrons are interacting with the device and where and when they’re using it. The data will enrich the launch of the larger project in September, when NYPL plans to roll out loans to 10,000 homes across the city. While the larger launch comes with a $1 million price tag, Marx said NYPL is already discussing an additional $1.5 million with a potential investor to complete the project.

The information will also be useful for the State Library systems of Kansas and Maine, which NYPL is working with to determine how to implement a similar model in more rural areas.

But the library is not the only government institution hoping to help others plug in. Last month the New York’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) announced a plan to replace 7,300 pay phones with updated equipment including free WiFi hotspots as well as phone use. The city will award a bid to carry out the project by the year’s end, according to Government Technology.

In Chicago, library officials are targeting six neighborhoods with low Internet adoption rates (50 percent or less). CPL is also renting out laptops and tablets along with mobile hotspots, all of which can be on loan for up to three weeks at a time. Patrons can also use the library’s digital and information literacy services, which will be made available with the equipment.

The library has long been considered a community pillar, connecting and empowering people with knowledge. Rather than falling into the shadows of the digital revolution, more cities should take note of how these two major library systems are not only embracing the technology, but finding solutions to bridge the digital divide.

MORE: The Innovative Service Bringing the Digital Revolution to Libraries

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