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Report: Public Libraries Essential to Closing Digital Divide

A report released last week by the American Library Association underscores the role of public libraries in expanding digital equity during the COVID-19 pandemic through partnerships with government entities and other efforts.

The entrance to the Boston Public Library.
The American Library Association released a report last week underlining the role of libraries in expanding digital equity throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Libraries have played an increasingly central role in expanding access to emerging technology, as well as in digital literacy programming efforts with partnerships like Tucson Connected. This role was made even more important during the pandemic, when patrons were forced to adapt to jarring new realities.

The report, titled Keeping Communities Connected: Library Broadband Services During the COVID-19 Pandemic, explores the efforts of libraries to understand and combat the digital divide.

While libraries have provided Wi-Fi connectivity outside of operating hours prior to the COVID-19 pandemic in many cases — 81 percent of libraries surveyed by the Public Library Association in March 2020 reported doing so — 12 percent expanded on this practice in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ALA report highlights specific examples of libraries expanding Internet access. For example, a pilot initiative in Boone County, Ky., created a wide area mesh network to reach 200 households, while the Wi-Fi on Wheels initiative in Orange County, Calif., provided broadband for a 300-yard radius from pre-designated locations.

In addition to expanding access to Wi-Fi, libraries have also offered resources to provide technical support and to help patrons build digital skills.

One example noted in the report was the Salt Lake City Public Library’s Digital Navigators Program, which offers technical support from troubleshooting to one-on-one digital skills training. Similarly, a library in Roxbury Township, N.J., offered online workshops when the pandemic forced it to close to help small businesses adapt to virtual operations.

The report also details digital disparities for young people and seniors, as well as barriers that impact people of color. For example, while about 82 percent of white people own a computer, that is only true for 58 percent of Black people and 57 percent of Hispanic people.

Libraries are addressing digital equity in large part by leveraging collaborative partnerships with local governments and schools. In one such case, the Buena Vista Public Library in Colorado partnered with the town of Buena Vista to offer public Wi-Fi access in a local park.

The ALA report also underlines that challenges remain in this space. Most prominently, tight budgets limit libraries from expanding broadband access as widely as demand requires. A secondary challenge is overall access to Internet connections, as some libraries are in areas without broadband, which make solutions like hot spots less effective.

The report concludes that libraries have played a critical role in keeping communities connected during the pandemic by addressing immediate connectivity needs and building the foundation for longer-term economic recovery.

Keeping Communities Connected is not only a critical incident report but a playbook for the long-term work of advancing digital equity and a guide for investments necessary to make progress,” said ALA president Patty Wong in the announcement.