COVID-19 has caused libraries around the US to stay closed since mid-March. Less than two-thirds of Americans in rural areas have broadband internet connections at their homes. The Markup has written about the ways in which libraries are attempting to keep their patrons online. It’s well worth a read.
In the town of Cherokee, Iowa, about 40 percent of school-aged kids have no internet access. Tyler Hahn, director of the Cherokee Public Library, told The Markup that many of the services he previously provided to the town’s residents have had to take new forms. The library has left Wi-Fi on 24/7, and kids sit in the parking lot to use their phones. Hahn has helped older patrons access the internet by shouting instructions through the building’s windows.
“We have a lot of people who switched from shopping in stores to using Amazon for the first time in their lives, said Hahn. “Through the window, we were walking them through the steps.”
People have also come to the library to ask Hahn for the phone number to call to apply for unemployment benefits, since they can’t look it up online themselves, he said. They’ve dropped dollar bills through the book slot to pay for printouts of forms.
Libraries around the country have had to take similarly unconventional approaches. Some are installing extra routers around their communities, bringing Wi-Fi around in “roving Bookmobiles,” and even lending out hotspots. That’s not a realistic solution in all places, though:
Hahn, the Cherokee Library director, says he would love to lend out Wi-Fi hotspots in addition to the few Chromebooks his library has but thinks community need is so vast that any program he started with current resources would be quickly overwhelmed. The local public high school let students bring laptops home to use for their (voluntary) remote-learning program, but not hotspots, he said.
Several librarians independently said that their hotspot-lending programs are “just a drop in the bucket” or “just a Band-Aid” to the overwhelming need for reliable internet and the basic skills to use it.
“Even to work at McDonald’s, you’ll get a 30-page online application, and if you’re not comfortable with the drop-down menu, this is really going to be a challenge,” said Kate Eppler, manager of The Bridge at Main, a literacy and learning center in the San Francisco Public Library system.
Other libraries are offering curbside book pickup, hosting Facebook Live reading events, distributing books and art supplies to students, printing out and mailing unemployment applications, and even creating face masks and shields with their 3D printers and sewing machines.
“Never before did people need access more—in a day and age where the government is requiring more and more to happen online—than during a pandemic,” said Johnson [CEO and president of Brooklyn Public Library]. “It is a true perfect storm: The deprivation is more extreme than ever, and the need is higher.”
The Markup’s article is an excellent look at the unique way the pandemic has impacted rural, low-income communities, and it’s a good read.