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Western Illinois University, Libraries to Lend Chromebooks

The university has teamed up with four local community libraries to establish Chromebook lending programs and shrink the digital divide as telework and online learning continue to boost demand for devices.

Noting a lack of Internet access among many rural residents in Illinois, Western Illinois University has partnered with four community libraries to establish free Chromebook lending programs amid efforts to help close the state’s digital divide, a recent announcement said.

According to a news release, the program will provide 16 LTE Chromebooks to Illinois public libraries in Salem, Quincy, Rushville and Macomb, thanks to funding from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity Office of Broadband and the Illinois Innovation Network. The announcement said the computers will allow borrowers free Internet access, without a subscription from an Internet service provider.

“WIU is working with community libraries because our institution has a long tradition working with rural communities to ensure access to knowledge and technology,” said Chris Merrett, WIU dean of innovation and economic development and director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs, in a public statement. “We selected libraries in partnership with the Illinois Heartland Library System (IHLS) and the Reaching Across Illinois Library System (RAILS), which are part of the Illinois system that manages community libraries. Community libraries were invited to apply to host the Chromebook lending program, and WIU, IHLS and RAILS selected libraries based on application quality, combined with their community broadband needs as identified by a community digital divide index.”

According to the announcement, the program is part of larger statewide initiatives led by WIU to expand access to devices, broadband and digital literacy resources across Illinois. The launch of the new Chromebook program also comes as communities elsewhere in the U.S. establish device lending programs amid the rise of telework and remote online learning during COVID-19.

The announcement noted that the demand for Chromebooks across Illinois increased during the pandemic, with libraries receiving more applications than available devices in recent months.

“Even after the library’s business hours, students were sitting in their cars in our parking lot, using the library’s free Wi-Fi to finish their homework assignments,” Macomb Public Library Director Dennis Danowski said in a public statement.

According to the news release, the lending programs will be ready before the new school year starts in August.