WASHINGTON, D.C. – A new report released today by the American Library Association shows the impact of broadband access through the nation’s nearly 17,000 public libraries during the pandemic, as well as the need for continued long-term investments in broadband infrastructure and digital inclusion programming. “Keeping Communities Connected: Library Broadband Services During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” part of the ALA Policy Perspectives series, is co-authored by Amelia Bryne and Marijke Visser.
“Keeping Communities Connected illustrates libraries’ heroic efforts to stand in the digital gaps exposed at the onset of the pandemic,” said ALA President Patty Wong. “Even while a majority of libraries closed facilities, libraries emerged as much more than fixed coordinates on a map as many found ways to continue their most important services as well as to innovate new ones to meet emerging needs.”
When the global COVID-19 pandemic forced work, school, and other daily tasks online, libraries rose to the emergency to provide an internet connection and technology to those who otherwise would lack such access. The report documents both widespread practices and unique strategies employed by U.S. public libraries to keep Americans connected during this challenging time, such as:
- The Orange County (Calif.) Public Libraries’ Wi-Fi on Wheels initiative brought internet connectivity to low broadband neighborhoods throughout the County.
- The Twin Lakes (Ga.) Library system used TV White space to expand its Wi-Fi connectivity.
- Just before the pandemic shuttered schools and businesses (March 2020), 10 Dallas libraries received 900 hotspots for people to borrow. Two weeks later, all of them were checked out.
Libraries not only provided basic access via outdoor Wi-Fi and hotspot lending but have also offered virtual and in-library resources and technology support:
- Salt Lake City Public Library partnered to develop a Digital Navigators Program, which adapts traditional digital inclusion support like troubleshooting computer issues or uploading forms, providing individuals with one-on-one digital skills help via phone service.
- When libraries in Roxbury Township (N.J.) closed, staff quickly shifted to offer planned small business workshops online, adapting the content to be relevant to the challenges facing the business community.
- The Schlow Centre Region (Penn.) Library offered access to Zoom subscriptions to help people stay connected when they could not gather in the physical space of the library.
“As the pandemic recedes, the needs remain, and so do America’s libraries–but not without cost,” said Wong. “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.”
The report concludes that investments in library broadband, Wi-Fi and related devices made during the pandemic not only helped to address immediate needs, but also lay the groundwork for economic recovery. Connectivity, end-user devices and new library services will help support Americans experiencing economic hardship as they look for jobs, learn new workplace skills or transition to new careers.