Local libraries battle pandemic’s pressure on the digital divide, find new ways to provide services

In Isabella County, 26.7% of households do not have a broadband internet subscription, according to the United States Census Bureau.

 

While internet access was critical for everything from doing research for class projects to searching for a job to filing unemployment before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the importance of reliable internet access has become even more evident over the last seven months.

 

In many communities, libraries provide much-needed access to computers and WiFi that many people may not otherwise have. Throughout the pandemic, they have tried to find unique ways to continue providing this service safely.Traditionally, libraries have been able to help fill the gap created by the digital divide between those who have access to computers and the internet, and those who do not; however, when library buildings closed due to the pandemic, they had to get creative in order to help ensure that gap doesn’t become an uncrossable chasm for those without internet access who are working from home and doing virtual learning.

 

Meeting community needs in a digital age

 

The local library isn’t going to stop offering books for checkout and turn exclusively into a computer café any time soon, but it’s undeniable that providing reliable computer and internet access has become an important role of a library – especially in areas such as Isabella County, which faces high levels of poverty and has many rural communities.

 

A recent ALICE report (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) shows 23% of households in Isabella 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 only have a dial-up connection.

 

In Isabella County, 26.7% of households do not have a broadband internet subscription.

- United States Census Bureau

“The library – especially rural libraries – have really fulfilled that role because sometimes it’s hard to get internet access or fast internet access,” says Corey Friedrich, director of the Chippewa River District Library system.

At the Pere Marquette District Library in Clare and the Harrison District Library, Director Sheila Bissonnette says, “We typically have at least 1,500-1,700 connections on our WiFi monthly.”

 

In addition to using libraries for computer and internet access, many people have also come to depend on the library to print and scan documents.

 

Battling the digital divide during COVID-19

 

Knowing a significant portion of the community relies on the library for its various technology, once the COVID-19 pandemic forced libraries to close they had to ask themselves, “How do we continue meeting this need when people can’t come into the building?”


Due to the pandemic and to help prevent COVID-19 transmission, materials that are returned to the library are collected from the dropbox and then quarantined for 72 hours before being reshelved.

Libraries within the Chippewa River District Library system (CRDL), as well as the Pere Marquette District Library and Harrison District Library, have been able to continue providing printing services by having a program in which community members upload the file they need printed to the library website and pick it up later. However, continuing to provide easy, reliable access to WiFi and computers has been more challenging.

“We have three main groups of people we serve at the library,” says Friedrich. “There are those who come in for materials; there are those who come in for the computers; and there are those who come in for programming. We’ve been able to serve two of those groups through the pandemic. The group who comes for materials we serve with curbside service, and the programming group we can serve virtually and we do have grab-and-go craft programs; but, the group that uses the computers has been the toughest.”

Protective plastic wraps around the Customer Service desk where Veterans Memorial Library employee Karylnn Madison works.

One of the primary ways the libraries within the CRDL, as well as the Pere Marquette District Library and Harrison District Library, ensured community members still had access to the internet at the library was by leaving the WiFi on and even expanding its reach. Both Bissonnette and Friedrich say their libraries received a grant from the CARES Act that enabled them to do this.

 

“We have three main groups of people we serve at the library. There are those who come in for materials; there are those who come in for the computers; and there are those who come in for programming. We’ve been able to serve two of those groups through the pandemic. The group who comes for materials we serve with curbside service, and the programming group we can serve virtually and we do have grab-and-go craft programs; but, the group that uses the computers has been the toughest.”

- Corey Friedrich, director of the Chippewa River District Library system

Friedrich says being able to get more powerful routers for all of the libraries within the CRDL enabled the WiFi to reach beyond the library walls so people can sit in the parking lot or on the sidewalk to use it.
 

At the Pere Marquette District Library, mobile hotspots have also helped provide a solution to the digital divide through the pandemic. While the library has offered these since the fall of 2019, it started with three last year and was able to add five more this year. The Harrison District Library also purchased five this year, which aren’t available for checkout yet but will be in the near future. Bissonnette says mobile hotspots can be checked out for two weeks at a time. While they don’t necessarily guarantee the ability to connect to the internet from someone’s home, depending on where the person lives, they do provide the freedom of not relying on the WiFi at the library.

 

Purchasing mobile hotspots was a topic of discussion at the CRDL when the pandemic struck, says Friedrich; however, the library system has purchased them in the past with less-than-favorable results. Of the five previously purchased, four were not returned.

 

“Generally, we want the stuff that we do to benefit as many people as possible,” he says. “If we’re investing money in something that will only be used by one person because they never bring it back then that’s not good money management on our part.”

 

That doesn’t mean the CRDL gave up on finding a way to safely provide access to WiFi and computers for people who need it now, perhaps more than ever, though. They are in the process of doing remodeling at the Veterans Memorial Library which will allow for the safe use of computers within the library. Friedrich explains that the study rooms at the library that currently have an open top are being remodeled to close off the top and a computer is being added to each room. Closing off the top of these study rooms was part of a strategic plan that was recently adopted; however, this part of the plan wasn’t scheduled until later.

 

“We weren’t initially planning to do it in year one, but we figured since we’re closed anyways we would do it… we also hadn’t planned to use them for computer rooms, but that’s how we’re going to make them safe for both staff and patrons to use,” Friedrich says.

 

Friedrich says the hope is that the project is completed and ready for the public to use by November, if things go smoothly.

Pere Marquette District Library, located in Clare, Michigan, has been operating with limited capacity, allowing 20 patrons in the library at a time, since early June. That capacity restriction was eliminated on Oct. 8.

Providing access to computers was one of the main motivators for opening the Pere Marquette District Library and the Harrison District Library as soon as the “okay” was given. Both opened to the public in early June with capacity limited, but Bissonnette says those limits were eliminated on Oct. 8.

 

“That’s one of the big things we were focused on during the stay-at-home order - for people who don’t have access at home and rely on the library that we were able to open up safely and could open,” says Bissonnette.

 

Finding new ways to serve the community

 

Of course, checking out books remains a primary function of the library as well and ensuring books are available to the public has been important to both Friedrich and Bissonnette.

Veterans Memorial Library employee Jaclyn "Jackie" Prout prepares an order for a customer.

The use of e-books has increased and both directors say their libraries had to increase the budget for those resources.

 

“We did increase spending on those materials. We did have patrons calling or e-mailing us because they wanted library cards and wanted access to e-books. We had several get library cards just for that reason,” says Friedrich, adding that the use of e-books is still currently up by about 25% over the same time last year. “If it turns out, after the pandemic, that people are still using electronic books at the rate they are now, that’s fine with me.”

 

The libraries have also found ways to accommodate patrons who still love the smell of a paper book and the feeling of turning a page by using curbside service.

 

The Clare District Library made good use of lockers located outside the main building. Patrons are assigned a locker that their order will be in, then get a pin code to access it.

 

“In Clare, we’ve had the outside lockers for three to four years now,” says Bissonnette. “We have a handful of patrons that used them all of the time so it was nice when we were doing curbside to have those for the public.”

Veterans Memorial Library employee Jaclyn "Jackie" Prout brings out a customer's order to their vehicle as part of their curbside service.

While curbside service is something new for the CRDL system, it was an idea Friedrich hoped to propose this year in a Team Leader meeting after hearing about the positive ways it was used at other libraries during a conference he attended in February.

 

“Before we had that Team Leader meeting, we were shut down. So, we were forced to try curbside without doing an experiment,” he says. “I know, going forward, that I want to continue curbside because I think there will still be those patrons who will enjoy this service even after the pandemic is over.”

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