Expanding at-Home Access: Adding a Mobile Hotspot Lending Program to the Public Library

Introduction

Where do you go when you need to find a job?  Where do you turn when you want more information about a product or service?  What is your go-to source for current news and information?  If you’re like many Americans, the answer is probably online.  The Internet has transformed the way that we seek information, and the number of devices that allow us to go online has expanded Internet access to more people than ever before.  Yet in a time when mobile technologies have expanded access to unprecedented levels, a significant percentage of Americans do not have adequate at-home access to the Internet.

For those without access to a reliable home Internet connection, public libraries are reliable places to use Wi-Fi.  The availability of services may be even more significant in disadvantaged or rural communities, which experience lower home access levels than their more advantaged urban or suburban counterparts.  Wi-Fi access through public libraries is, however, inevitably limited to the library’s operating hours.  In communities where a significant percentage of the population face barriers to home Internet access, public libraries can play an important role to expanding access through the adoption of mobile Wi-Fi hotspot lending programs.

Literature Review

Rapid technological developments and the expansion of wireless connection options have brought the Internet home for a majority of the US population; however, as many as 30% of Americans lack home broadband Internet access (Bertot, Real, Lee, McDermott, & Jaeger, 2015, p. ix).  This not-insubstantial percentage increases in some communities; there are significant technological divisions between segments of society.  The divisions between Internet haves- and have-nots tends to settle along lines of income, education level, race, age, and geography (Jaeger, Bertot, Thompson, Katz, & Decoster, 2012; Bertot, Real, Lee, McDermott, & Jaeger, 2015).  According to some estimates, the percentage of individuals without home internet access more than doubles in low-income communities (Inklebarger, 2015, para. 1).

For those who lack home broadband connections, public libraries play a vital role in Internet access.  According to a 2010 study by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, libraries, trailing only school and work, are the third most popular out-of-home site for accessing the Internet (Weiss, 2012, p. 35).  By providing access to broadband, Wi-Fi, and Internet-enabled technology and assisting the public in learning how to access and use technology, public libraries are actively helping close the digital divide (Bertot, Real, Lee, McDermott, & Jaeger, 2015, p. ix).

While it’s definitely a valuable service, on-site Wi-Fi access is generally restricted to the operating hours of the library; it doesn’t allow patrons the flexibility of 24-hour access.  To overcome this limitation and provide their patrons with more flexible Internet access, some libraries have begun looking at mobile options.  One innovative solution to providing flexible access is a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot lending program.

Application in Libraries

A mobile hotspot is essentially a small, battery-powered Wi-Fi station that goes where you go.  Mobile hotspots use 3G or 4G cellular networks and wirelessly share the data connection with other Wi-Fi enabled devices, like cell phones, eReaders, tablets, and laptops.  Usually, connections extend to around 30 feet; the number of devices that are able to use the connection simultaneously varies, depending on the hotspot and the devices, but typically ranges from three to ten (Patterson, 2012).

In 2014, the New York Public Library (NYPL) started a small Wi-Fi lending program with the purchase of 100 mobile hotspots (Inklebarger, 2015).  The program was so successful that they purchased an additional 10,000 mobile hotspots, with grant assistance, to use in a highly successful program that brings Internet access to NYC residents without home Internet.  The hotspots are loaned to patrons across three library systems.  Borrowing a hotspot is free; the library charges no fees for the device or service.  Devices can be borrowed for one year, and patrons have free Wi-Fi access 24-hours per day, every day of the week.  The only fee associated with the program is a $100 replacement cost for devices that are not returned to the library within a year (New York Public Library, 2015).

In June 2014, the Chicago Public Library (CPL) joined the NYPL as another example of a large public library system with a Wi-Fi lending program.  Similar to the NYPL, the CPL loans mobile hotspots to patrons at no cost.  However, the lending program is somewhat different.  The CPL’s lending period is three weeks, as opposed to the NYPL’s year, but hotspots can be renewed up to 15 times as long as they are not placed on hold by another patron.  The CPL charges overdue fines of $1 per day, with a maximum of $10, and turns of hotspots that are not returned by the due date.  Replacement costs represent the market value of replacement; as of May 2015, the cost was approximately $40 (Chicago Public Library, 2015).  With this program, the Chicago Public Library has become the largest service provider in the city, providing one third of the free computer and Internet access (McKenzie, 2014).

Since 2014, libraries across the United States have slowly begun adding mobile Wi-Fi hotspot lending programs to the services they provide.  Nonprofit companies like Mobile Beacon, which partners with schools, colleges, libraries, and other nonprofits, have helped to expand affordable access options.  Together, libraries are using the innovative idea of lending mobile hotspots to allow patrons to take the Internet home and experience technology in ways that they may not be able without assistance.  By lending mobile Wi-Fi hotspots, libraries have found a unique way to help bridge the digital divide.

Challenges

Lending mobile hotspots is, of course, not without challenges.  One challenge is training; both staff and patrons must be trained to use both the Wi-Fi hotspots and the devices that patrons commonly use to connect to them.  Hand-in-hand with this challenge is allocating resources to answer questions.  Libraries lending mobile hotspots may need to reallocate staff members to respond to questions that come in after a patron leaves with a device.  For example, libraries must be able to talk to patrons who call after checking out a device if they forget how to turn it on or to help troubleshoot if a device is not allowing the patron to connect.  Patrons may also call with technologically-specific questions if, for example, they check out a mobile hotspot and don’t know how to detect it with a device (American Libraries Live, 2014).

A second challenge of lending Wi-Fi hotspots may be in figuring how to maximize their impact with the user community.  Libraries with mobile hotspot lending programs tend to have wildly diverse use policies, with loan periods ranging from weeks to a year.  It may take the library some time to determine loan policies that maximize the impact of device lending with their specific community’s needs.  Developing useful policies for loan and return may be an evolving process and even simple procedures, like deciding how devices are returned (physically at a counter or in a specific drop location),  may take time and patience for both staff and users (National Public Radio, 2015).

Finally, there are the associated—and not insubstantial—costs of purchasing devices and data.  According to an NPR interview with librarian Jennifer Urban of Spring Hill, Tennessee, the cost for data for 20 mobile hotspots is about $10,000 per year (National Public Library, 2015).  Device and data cost does vary significantly by device and service provider; through Mobile Beacon, one of most well-known and most affordable non-profit providers, 4G LTE plans average about $10/month/device (Mobile Beacon).

Conclusions

While lending mobile Wi-Fi hotspots involves challenges in training and reallocating staff, developing new policies and procedures, and allocating funding to new materials and services, the potential benefits to libraries and their patrons far outweighs the potential costs.  While Internet access is seemingly ubiquitous, to assume that everyone has access is to see overlook the silent minority of 30% of Americans who do not have broadband access at home.  By implementing the use of mobile Wi-Fi hotspot lending programs, public libraries have the potential to reach out to these internet have-nots, providing them with a reliable means of access, allowing them to experience the wealth of knowledge that is available online, and effectively helping to close the digital divide

References

American Libraries Live.  (2014).  Left to our devices: What librarians need to know about tablets and mobile apps.  Retrieved from https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/2014/07/22/left-to-our-devices/

Bertot, J.C., Real, B., McDermott, A.J., & Jaeger, P.T. (2015).  2014 Digital inclusion survey: Survey findings and results. College Park, MD: Information Policy and Access Center.  Retrieved from http://digitalinclusion.umd.edu/sites/default/files/uploads/2014DigitalInclusionSurveyFinalRelease.pdf

Chicago Public Library.  (2015).  Borrow a wifi hotspot from the Chicago Public Library.  Retrieved from http://www.chipublib.org/news/borrow-a-wifi-hotspot-from-chicago-public-library/

Inklebarger, T.  (2015).  Bridging the tech gap: Libraries across the country lend mobile wi-fi hotspots.  American Libraries.  Retrieved from http://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/2015/09/11/bridging-tech-gap-wi-fi-lending/

Jaeger, P. P., Bertot, J. C., Thompson, K. M., Katz, S. M., & DeCoster, E. J. (2012). The intersection of public policy and public access: Digital divides, digital literacy, digital inclusion, and public libraries. Public Library Quarterly, 31(1), 1-20.

McKenzie, J.  (2014).  Libraries hope to help close the digital divide by lending WiFi hotspots.  TechPresident Beta.  Retrieved from http://techpresident.com/news/25155/chicago-and-new-york-public-libraries-hope-help-close-digital-divide-lending-wifi

Mobile Beacon.  (n.d.).  Who we help: Libraries.  Retrieved from http://www.mobilebeacon.org/who-we-help/who-we-help-libraries/

National Public Radio.  (2015).  Libraries lend mobile wi-fi hotspots to those who need internet service.  Morning Edition.  Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/2015/12/24/460906891/libraries-lend-mobile-wi-fi-hot-spots-to-those-who-need-internet-service

New York Public Library.  (2015).  Library hotspot.  Retrieved from http://hotspot.nypl.org/

Patterson, B.  (2012).  Mobile wi-fi hotspots: Your questions, answered.  Here’s the Thing.  Retrieved from http://heresthethingblog.com/2012/01/26/mobile-wi-fi-hotspots-questions/

Weiss, R. R. (2012). Libraries and the digital divide. Journal of the Library Administration & Management Section, 8(2), 25-47.

The Digital Divide

RuralIN

I grew up in an area that, at the time, was rural Indiana.  To clarify, that picture above?  That’s a preschool-aged me in the little red jacket.  Those buildings in the distance?  Barns and outbuildings also owned by my parents.  To say that neighbors were few and far wasn’t much of an exaggeration.  (Also to clarify, this was our second house and this is pre-renovation–it was DEFINITELY a fixer-upper of the practically requiring a re-build variety.)

Back in the 1980’s when this photo was taken, the Internet wasn’t exactly publicly available.  In-home internet service was a decade and a half from arriving in its dial-up incarnation; wifi a distant dream.  Pay phones were available in most cities, and a copy machine was just about the niftiest thing that anyone in our area had ever seen.  (We actually had one in our kitchen–oh, luxury of luxuries!)

In the early 1980’s, There were no OPACs for libraries–we were still wresting with the card catalog, a simple but very redundant physical tool.  ILL was possible but costly in terms of time and waiting.  The technologies available at the time were things that would make people laugh today–simple things like tape recorders and headsets for audio cassettes.  Color copies might have existed but weren’t expected, and library programming–at least in our area–was pretty simple and centered on book groups, homework help, and kids crafts.

Public libraries are important for many reasons, and providing access to current technologies is definitely not the least of their functions.  In terms of library settings, rural libraries have always struggled to keep pace with their urban and suburban counterparts in terms of providing access to and support for evolving technologies.  As the pace of technological advance continues to accelerate and technologies diversify rapidly, the gap between urban and rural libraries has widened.  This is important stuff–public libraries are the major means of access for many patrons, especially those from low socioeconomic status and members of minority ethnic groups.  When libraries struggle to provide technology access, the digital divide increases.

What is the Digital Divide?

Definitions of the digital divide have changed over time as technology has evolved.  Today, the digital divide is defined in terms of the gap between those to have access to computers and the Internet and those who do not have access (NTIA, 1999).

Why is the Concept of the Digital Divide Important to Libraries?

Nationally, in 2011, approximately 16% of the population reported being entirely unconnected to the Internet (File, 2013, p. 13).  A higher percentage of people in rural communities tend to be disconnected, and many people who lack connectivity to the Internet rely upon public libraries for access.  According to the ALA, public libraries play a role in four key areas of digital inclusion:

    • Public access technology,
    • Digital content services,
    • Digital literacy,
    • Services and programs related to civic engagement, education/learning, health and wellness, and workforce/employment

How do Libraries Foster Digital Inclusion?

As early adopters of technology and the only consistent providers of free public access to computers and the Internet, public libraries have a history of fostering digital inclusion through providing:

  • Quality public access to digital technologies, including public access computers and broadband Internet;
  • Access to digital content, including eBooks and online periodicals;
  • Services and programs that promote digital literacy, including training in basic computer and Internet skills; and
  • Services and programming related to community needs, including education, employment and workforce development, civic development, and health and wellness.  This includes providing and promoting access to summer reading activities, literacy and education programming, after school and homework programs, subscription-based job training websites, job skills workshops, assistance with unemployment filing, assistance with government programs and services, subscriptions to health and wellness databases, etc. (Bertot et al., 2015, p. xi)

The Lowdown

What new knowledge, skills or understanding have you gained?  (Description)

This week, I decided to go further in the exploration of technology access in libraries by exploring the concept of the digital divide.  Although the definition of the digital divide has changed over time, it is currently loosely defined as the gap between Internet haves and have-nots.  In a time when technology seems ubiquitous, it’s interesting to note that up to 16% of the American population does not have any connection to the Internet.  For many Americans, access is limited to public libraries.

I learned that the gap between technology haves and have-nots widens in rural communities, which tend to have less access to quality high-speed connections than their urban and suburban counterparts.  Public libraries are especially vital for technology access in these communities.

How can you use what you have learned?  (Application)

I think it’s important for librarians to understand the reality of the digital divide and to be able to identify whom it most affects.  Libraries have always been early adopters of technology, but it’s really important that they concentrate resources to reach out to those who have the least access–people in rural communities, individuals with low socioeconomic status, and ethnic minorities.  I think that it is important for librarians to be aware of the needs of the user community so they can be effective patron advocates.

How does it relate to library work?  (Reflection)

Information about the actual statistical differences between populations may be most relevant to those who work in libraries with greater communities of affected users, but it is important for all librarians to understand the impact of the digital divide.  The digital divide and digital inclusion are important new topics in library science that are only going to become more relevant with time, so the topic is directly related to library work.

What resources (activities) have helped you to understand and/or have been interesting to use?  (Activities/Resources)

American Library Association.  (2015). Public libraries lead the way to digital inclusion.  Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/offices/ors/public-libraries-lead-way-digital-inclusion

Bertot, J.C., Real, B., McDermott, A.J., & Jaeger, P.T. (2015).  2014 Digital inclusion survey: Survey findings and results. College Park, MD: Information Policy and Access Center.  Retrieved from http://digitalinclusion.umd.edu/sites/default/files/uploads/2014DigitalInclusionSurveyFinalRelease.pdf

File, T.  (2013). Computer and internet usage in the United States: Population characteristics.  Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau.  Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/p20-569.pdf

File, T. & Ryan, C.  (2014). Computer and internet usage in the United States: 2013.  Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau.  Retrieved from http://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2014/acs/acs-28.pdf

Information Policy & Access Center.  (2015). Digital literacy and public libraries.  College Park, MD: Information Policy and Access Center.  Retrieved from http://www.plinternetsurvey.org/analysis/public-libraries-and-digital-literacy

National Telecommunications and Information Administration.  (1999).  Falling through the net: Defining the digital divide.  Washington, DC: National Communications and Information Administration.  Retrieved from http://www.ntia.doc.gov/legacy/ntiahome/fttn99/FTTN.pdf

Virtual Reference: A Librarian at your Fingertips?

The ALA defines virtual reference as reference services initiated electronically, where patrons employ computers or other technologies to communicate with reference staff, without having to be present at a library.  Virtual reference technologies may be synchronous or asynchronous and may include chat, video chat or conferencing, voice-over IP, co-browsing, instant messaging, SMS, online guides or tutorials, and email.  While virtual reference interviews may be conducted in real time, they may also take place in the form of emails or form request submissions.

Virtual reference services have a number of potential benefits for the library and for library patrons.  Virtual reference can reach out to patrons in and out of the library, invite new users to the library, and take the library to users.  It supports the need for real-time assistance, extends library service hours, and  may help library users learn how to find information for themselves.

The relative effectiveness of virtual reference may vary, depending upon the services provided as well as the degree of technological sophistication of library staff.  Training also plays a major role.  Virtual reference is different than face-to-face reference in a number of ways, and the skills required to conduct a successful reference interview may differ from those employed in a face-to-face scenario.

The Lowdown

What new knowledge, skills or understanding have you gained?  (Description)

This week, I learned about Virtual Reference.  I learned about the various synchronous and asynchronous technologies that libraries use to provide remote reference services.  Some synchronous technologies include IM, SMS, chat, video conferencing, and traditional phone calls.  Asynchronous technologies include email, web-forms, and online guides or tutorials.

How can you use what you have learned?  (Application)

A majority of libraries employ some type of virtual reference; many offer multiple types of virtual reference services.  I can use what I have learned—particularly the suggestions on how to provide better virtual reference services—to make sure that I know how to self-evaluate services that I provide in the future.

How does it relate to library work?  (Reflection)

Virtual reference relates directly to library work as it is a vital component of many libraries’ reference services.

What resources (activities) have helped you to understand and/or have been interesting to use?  (Activities/Resources)

American Library Association.  (2016).  Virtual Reference: A Selected Annotated Bibliography: ALA Library Fact Sheet 19.  Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/tools/libfactsheets/alalibraryfactsheet19

Khobragade, A. y., & Lihitkar, S. s. (2016). Evaluation of Virtual Reference Service Provided by IIT Libraries: A Survey. DESIDOC Journal Of Library & Information Technology, 36(1), 23-28.

Schwartz, H. R., & Trott, B. b. (2014). The Application of RUSA Standards to the Virtual Reference Interview. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 54(1), 8-11.

Yang, S. Q., & Dalai, H. A. (2015). VIRTUAL REFERENCE: WHERE DO ACADEMIC LIBRARIES STAND?. Computers In Libraries, 35(4), 4-10 7p.

Virtual Reality: Coming Soon to a Library Near You?

Virtual Reality (VR) headsets are the new rage in gaming–and why not?  Video games have always grappled with point of view and immersive experiences.  With increasingly immersive technology and stunning graphic capabilities, VR headsets are the next step in drawing the player into the virtual world.

But what if you could use this technology in the library?  How would that work?

The Lowdown

What new knowledge, skills or understanding have you gained?  (Description)

This week, I learned about how libraries can use Virtual Reality technologies.  VR may be used in libraries in a variety of ways.  For example, storytelling or storytime may be ehanced with apps like vrse, which helps make stories come alive.  Libraries may provide access to educational experiences, like NASA’s Oculus app which lets users experience what it is like to ride in a spaceship.  These types of experiences aren’t limited to the elementary school-aged crowd: Toyota has developed a VR driving simulator that can help teens experience distracted driving in a safe environment.  Or what if you could help low-income patrons experience the world like never before?  Other apps can provide virtual field trip experiences, which allow users of all ages to experience the world in a completely different and enhanced manner.  Realistically never going to be able to travel to Egypt to see the pyramids?  No problem–Oculus can do that; your library can help.

How can you use what you have learned?  (Application)

I can use this information to discuss and make more informed decisions about VR/AR technology and the utility of its inclusion in the library.  I can also use this baseline information as a starting point to learn more about the specific technologies available, which may assist in material/technology selection.

How does it relate to library work?  (Reflection)

VR/AR technology is a hot new topic in which many patrons are interested.  Knowing more about this technology is important for librarians because they should be able to competently discuss the technology options with the public.  It may also relate to library work if a library is considering adding this technology to their services/items available.

What resources (activities) have helped you to understand and/or have been interesting to use?  (Activities/Resources)

Lambert, T.  (2016).  Virtual reality in the library: Creating a new experience.  Public Libraries Online.  Retrieved from http://publiclibrariesonline.org/2016/02/virtual-reality-in-the-library-creating-a-new-experience/

Sarno, D.  Virtual reality for learning: Linking communities with library-based world building.  Retrieved from https://www.newschallenge.org/challenge/libraries/feedback/virtual-reality-for-learning-linking-communities-with-library-based-world-building

The Grey Spring

I saw the green Spring

Wading the brooks

With wild jay laughter

And hoyden looks.

I saw the grey Spring

Weeping alone

Where woods are misty

And buds unblown.

Red were the lips

Whence laughter leapt;

But Oh, it was Beauty

Herself that wept.

–Alfred Noyes