The Growing Range

Kaara Baptiste
Nov 20, 2014 · 4 min read

of Library Wi-Fi

By Kaara Baptiste

Every night when library manager Jeanine Thomas locks up, she sees a familiar sight: people huddled outside her Mott Haven branch, silhouetted by streetlights. The fluorescent glow of their mobile devices bounces off their faces as they stand transfixed to their spot. The draw: free Wi-Fi.

Internet access is a big pull for the library during the day as well, said Thomas, who has worked at the Mott Haven branch in the Bronx for six years. It is common to see patrons, young and old, perched at the computer kiosks or seated at the tables throughout the building, hunched over their laptops or phones.

The local library is often the go-to resource for those who do not have the Internet at home, said Thomas. New York Public Library offers free Wi-Fi access at 92 of its branches in Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island. But now NYPL is bringing the Internet to more homes throughout the city with an innovative program.

With funding from the Knight Foundation, NYPL has launched a Wi-Fi lending program where families can rent devices connecting them to the Internet at home.

Approximately 100 families in four branches— Port Richmond in Staten Island and Bronx Library Center, Mott Haven and Highbridge in the Bronx — are participating in a trial run that started this summer, according to NYPL.

“They really enjoy it,” Thomas said of the program’s reception at the Mott Haven branch. “The parents are excited because the kids now have Wi-Fi at home. They have their own device to do homework, research and learning programs.”

Parents with a library card and a child enrolled in a NYPL after-school enrichment program can participate. Each family receives a Chromebook and hotspot device to set up Wi-Fi at home. Families can borrow these devices for a maximum of four months.

The idea for democratizing Internet access came from a challenge issued to NYPL president Tony Marx by Andrew Rasiej, broadband access advocate and chairman of NY Tech Meetup: “You let people check out books why don’t you let them check out the Internet?” he said, according to the New York Times.

NYPL just announced that the program will expand to more libraries throughout all five boroughs to provide at least 10,000 hotspots to families, targeting neighborhoods with low Internet connectivity. A NYPL study found that 27 percent of patrons do not have broadband access at home. Nearly half of patrons with household incomes of less than $35,000 reported lack of Internet at home.

In Mott Haven , where the median household income is $23,000, the cost for monthly Internet and cable subscriptions can be prohibitive.

“This is great for our neighborhood because it is giving this service to some of our parents, who can’t afford Wi-Fi from Cablevision or Time Warner,” Thomas said.

Eventually NYPL wants the Wi-Fi lending program to reach 10,000 families in all five boroughs.

The proliferation of mobile devices, Internet research and e-books has not diminished the presence of local public libraries. Public computers and associated services are in high demand and expanding the scope of library services. Wi-Fi hotspot rentals are one example of how New York’s public libraries have embraced technology to provide relevant services to patrons. Last year, NYPL hosted more than 3.1 million computing sessions, 2.8 million Wi-Fi sessions and provided access to more than 1,500 laptops.

In November 2013, Brooklyn Public Library launched a tablet-lending program in the branches severely affected by Hurricane Sandy to help families who lost personal computers in the storm. The program, made possible through donations from Google and The Fund for Public Schools, makes 1,000 Google Nexus 7 tablets available for patrons.

Taniqua Hollingsworth, technology library supervisor with BPL, said just as libraries providing access to free books helped narrow the literacy divide, these tech programs address today’s technology divide.

“You have kids who don’t have computers at home or access to tablets,” she said. “Some don’t know what these things look like. With us providing tablets, laptops and increasing access to technology, we’re trying to make that gap smaller.”

Her goal is that patrons to walk into any library and have access to a range of technology resources, from laptop rentals to classes to self-service checkout.

“We’re trying to help everyone,” she said. “We want to be able to say our kids can compete with anyone else’s kids.”

With more funding, the Wi-Fi lending program will help more families be have at-home Internet access. And perhaps fewer people will have to camp outside libraries for the Internet. Not that Jeanine Thomas minds.

“People are there everyday. We have a great service for Wi-Fi.”

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