Take-home devices would provide free web access to people who can’t afford it at home.
Amid paperback copies of romance novels and how-to manuals, the Toronto Public Library would like to see something else available for checkout in 2016: the Internet.
Lendable Wi-Fi hotspots are already being experimented with in cities such as New York and Chicago, and are billed as a way to bridge the digital divide in urban centres.
City Librarian Vickery Bowles said the Toronto library has included $100,000 in its 2016 operating budget for lendable Internet at branches located in neighbourhood improvement areas, where there are larger numbers of people who might need the service.
She feels Internet access has become an essential part of the services libraries should provide.
“People who lack broadband Internet access at home, they’re really at a disadvantage when it comes to employment, looking for a job or access to government services and education,” Bowles said.
Modern libraries have already become hubs for free Internet. A lineup of people waiting to polish their resumes, check email or even fill out government forms online has become a fixture at many branches.
The Toronto Public Library would figure out the details after funding is approved by council. But the idea is basically to let patrons check out a physical device that can provide free Wi-Fi for whatever device they have.
The library is already seeking private donors who could supplement the city funding, Bowles said.
Andrea Saenz, first deputy commissioner at the Chicago Public Library, said that under a pilot project that started this year, librarians in the Windy City have lent out about 700 devices at seven branches, in neighbourhoods where people are most likely not to have Internet access at home.
The point is to bring people who have been left in the digital dark into the online conversation.
“We’re missing those voices, and we’re missing those people, those citizens as engaged actors online,” she said.
The project has been met with lots of enthusiasm, but staff are still figuring out who is borrowing the devices and for what purpose, surveying people when they return the hotspots.
“I would say the jury is still out. We don’t have a ton of data back,” Saenz said, adding there are safeguards built in, allowing the library to turn the devices off if people don’t return them.
Charity Kittler, library hotspot program manager at the New York Public Library, said the idea for its Wi-Fi project came to the president of the library when he was walking around the Bronx one day and noticed a crowd of people hanging around outside a closed library branch, using the Wi-Fi bleed from the building.
“So it’s not just that our libraries are packed during the day. Even after the libraries close, people are still there because it’s one of the few places you can get free Wi-Fi,” Kittler said.
In that city, where 27 per cent of residents do not have broadband Internet access at home, according to city statistics, the hotspots are a hot commodity.
“It’s not just that you’re not able to access the internet if you don’t have it at home, it’s that the things you used to be able to do in person are now only online,” Kittler said.
The biggest complaint, she said, is that the internet is not fast enough, and that people want to use the devices for longer, even though patrons have been able to keep them from up to a year.
As for less educational uses, Kittler said the library doesn’t judge.
“We try to tell them upfront, we don’t recommend marathoning Game of Thrones, simply because your internet will then slow down afterwards,” she said with a laugh.
Libraries lending Wi-Fi
What other major library systems are doing with lendable Wi-Fi hardware.
New York City
New Yorkers with library cards can check out Wi-Fi hotpots powered by Sprint at “lending events” in 11 branches in high-needs areas across the city.
Funded by Google, The Knight Foundation, The Robin Hood Foundation, Open Society Foundations and the library itself, the program allows patrons to check out the devices for up to a year.
Although the devices have been very popular, library hotspot program manager Charity Kittler said it’s only a pilot program and the future remains under discussion.
A similar program is run by the Brooklyn Public Library and the Queens Library, she said.
The Chicago program is a two-year pilot that lets patrons check out hotspot devices from seven branches in neighbourhoods identified as having lots of people without home Internet access.
The loans are available for three weeks, and patrons can renew only if somebody isn’t waiting for the item.
The library applied for a grant from the Knight Foundation to help fund the project. Librarians had the same idea at the same time as their sister library in New York City, said Andrea Saenz of the Chicago Public Library.
The local Google office also kicked in some funding once it heard about the project, she said.
The southwestern Ontario city started its own pilot program, said to be the first in Canada, in October.
Mary Chevreau, chief executive officer of the Kitchener Public Library, said the library received a grant from a technology company to fund the pilot, which it hopes to run for a year. It’s hoped future fundraising would allow the program to continue.
There are 20 devices in circulation, available for checkout at the central branch for three weeks on a first-come-first-served basis with no holds or renewals.
“Our experience so far is that these things are extremely popular,” Chevreau said.
The Kansas City Library began lending out Wi-Fi hotspots to students and parents in the area school district in 2015. There are 25 devices in the program.
Library spokesperson Courtney Lewis said the program is funded by Mobile Beacon, an organization that works to provide non-profit with Internet access. The Kansas City Library hopes to expand the program with support from other private donors.