Library broadband initiatives helped patrons cope with the COVID-19 pandemic in many creative ways, as a new report from the American Library Association (ALA) illustrates.

Some of the initiatives were made possible through the Emergency Connectivity Fund, which directed over $7 billion to schools and libraries for computing devices and connectivity for students and library patrons.

Some libraries used ECF money to purchase hotspots which were loaned out to patrons, and the hotspots saw heavy usage, according to the ALA report. In Dallas, for example, 10 libraries received 900 hotspots and all of them were checked out within two weeks.

By the fall of 2020, nearly one third (32.6%) of public libraries offered a hotspot loan service, the report notes.

COVID Library Broadband

In many rural areas lacking broadband coverage, library broadband was already playing an important role even before COVID.

According to a survey conducted by the Public Library Association in March 2020, 81% of libraries already had a policy of leaving Wi-Fi on after hours before COVID-19 and an additional 12% of libraries expanded or added this service during COVID.

Numerous libraries found ways to expand connectivity beyond the library premises during the pandemic. For example, the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library in Kansas repurposed two of its bookmobiles as Wi-Fi hotspots to support local high school students lacking internet access at home.

And a library in rural Pottsboro, Texas led an initiative to get local businesses to keep their Wi-Fi networks active and allow the public to access them, even at times when the businesses were closed.

Similarly, the Malvern-Hot Spring County Library in Arkansas persuaded local businesses scattered through the area to host some of the library’s hotspots. The library targeted locations lacking mobile connectivity, and plans to keep these hotspots going as the pandemic wanes.

Some libraries experimented with new technologies to enhance coverage during the pandemic. For example, the Florence Branch Library in Boone County, Kentucky ran a pilot to explore expanding the library’s Wi-Fi by creating a wide-area mesh network. 

Zoom Conference Rooms

Other COVID library broadband initiatives were natural extensions of existing library capabilities. For example, the Schlow Centre Region Library in Pennsylvania began offering access to Zoom subscriptions for people who traditionally would have used library meeting rooms but were unable to do so during the pandemic.

Of particular interest to service providers, the Dayton Metro Library in Ohio received federal funding to cover the cost of connectivity and equipment for four months for 800 library cardholders. After the four months, program participants who were potentially eligible for low-cost broadband connectivity from the provider were able to transfer the service into their own name.

“Programs like this can be a critical leg up for financially struggling families, tech-shy residents and community members unaware of the possibility of the subsidized broadband service,” the ALA report notes.

The ALA report, titled “Keeping Communities Connected: Library Broadband Services During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” sees an ongoing role for library broadband as the U.S. recovers from the pandemic.

Library broadband resources “will help support residents who are experiencing economic hardship as they look for jobs, learn new workplace skills or transition to new careers,” the report concludes.

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