When COVID-19 closed businesses and schools last spring, a chasm opened up between those who have access to computers and reliable internet at home and those who do not.
The Bay County Library System built a digital bridge over that divide.
The local library isn’t going to stop offering books for checkout, but Assistant Library Director Kevin Ayala says the pandemic made it undeniable that libraries must expand access to computers and the internet.
In Bay County, the public availability of digital services is especially critical. U.S. Census Bureau statistics from 2014-2018 estimate that 21.7% of Bay County residents live in areas without access to broadband internet. Only 85% of Bay County households had a computer in that time period.
In November, the library is asking for a tax renewal to continue providing all its services. The new millage rate is lower than what’s currently being levied.
Long before the pandemic struck this country in March, the local library offered electronic books and digital publications. For years, computer labs have been available inside the library’s four buildings – Alice and Jack Wirt Public Library, Auburn Area Branch Library, Pinconning Branch Library, and Historical Sage Library. For those who bring their own devices, internet services extend throughout the buildings and into the parking lots.
The Bay County Library System has a millage proposal on the Nov. 3 ballot to support services at its four buildings and a bookmobile. The library is asking for a lower millage than it currently levies.
Earlier this year, the library stepped up publicity about its digital services, advertising through social media that free internet was available outside its buildings. Social media posts explained how to access digital books. The library website provides links to online resources for schoolwork and job searches.
These services matter in Bay County. A recent ALICE report (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) shows 14% of households in Bay County live in poverty, and data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that people living in rural communities and people living in poverty are more likely to not have internet access at home, or access to computers.
Ayala says when the library shut down its branch locations and the Bookmobile in March, it led to residents relying exclusively on digital resources. The library reopened on June 6, but Ayala says not everyone is comfortable going tino the branches. Digital resources continue to bridge the divide.
Library system is asking for a tax renewal
To continue meeting the need, the library is seeking a 1.75 mill tax to replace a 2.0 mill tax. Ayala points out this year’s request is unusual in that it’s lower than what was levied in the past.
“Twenty years ago, the taxpayers agreed to fund construction and renovation of libraries, but now that debt has been paid down,” Ayala says. “For the average taxpayer, they will pay less in 2021 than they did in 2020 for the library.”
Library Director Trish Burns Burns says reducing the millage from 2.0 mills to 1.75 mills means the average homeowner will pay about $70 per year for the library. The library’s budget includes operating four branch locations and the BCLS Bookmobile to underserved areas.
The U.S. Census plus the library equals a success story
Burns says the Bay County system is one of the few in Michigan still taking the library to the rural areas of the county. That proved a great help in getting people access to the 2020 Census. The BCLS Book Mobile, in operation since the late 1970s, was instrumental in getting a mobile hotspot and computer access into some of the remote areas of the county three days a week.
Burns says taking computers and internet to underserved areas, along with providing access at the four library buildings, paid off. Bay County saw a 78.5% of its residents complete the census, says Joni King, program officer for the Bay Area Community Foundation.
“The library was instrumental in getting the word out about the census,” says King. “We’re really grateful that they were able to help.”
A four-panel display near the entry of the Alice and Jack Wirt Public Library explains the history of how women won the right to vote and why voting rights struggles still persist. The display is presented by the Nation Archives Foundation.The county’s response rate is expected to continue rising. Although the census is closed, not all the numbers have been tallied. She says responses from nursing homes and people living in the county’s homeless shelters are not part of the latest numbers.
Library finding new ways to serve the public
The U.S. Census is closed now, but the library continues to explore its digital outreach into the community. Library branches are offering digital story times, reading programs, and tutoring. Ayala says the library provides laptops for patrons to check out at branch locations. Although the laptops can’t be removed from the buildings, they can be used on site. The BCLS Bookmobile also has laptops for patrons to use.
“We are always trying to expand and grow our services, and find new niches,” Ayala says, and the pandemic accelerated the process. “Because of the way the economy is evolving, and then COVID hit, so a lot of things have moved online.”
Even after the dust settles from the pandemic, Ayala says the library will continue to look for ways to grow.
“We definitely will be offering more services to the public,” Ayala says. “We do serve the underserved, that’s why we’re here. When we do see an opportunity, we do try to provide those services and help those individuals that need it the most.”
– Gabrielle Haiderer contributed to this article.