Elk Rapids library tackles the digital divide

Despite being a small library in a rural area, the Elk Rapids District Library has positioned itself well in the ever-important digital world, offering patrons internet service and HotSpot access long before the pandemic changed the way many public institutions operate. 

If people have been slow to return to the library since the pandemic, the demand for internet access, electronic equipment, e-books and digital magazines has only intensified. The library serves the residents of the village of Elk Rapids, the township of Elk Rapids and Milton and Torch Lake townships, just north of Traverse City. In all, the communities are home to about 8,000 residents.

“We are doing our best,” says Nannette Miller, who has been library director for 12 years and is planning to retire next month. “We are small and that’s all we can do.”

When did WiFi HotSpot access begin: The library has been allowing adult library cardholders to check out mobile WiFi HotSpots for the past six years. Patrons may check out the small, portable and rechargeable devices for one week.  The library has continuously added to its supply of mobile devices and now has 15. WiFi also may be accessed in the library parking lot 24 hours a day. In addition, the library has four computer/internet workstations and seven laptops available to patrons, free of charge. Elk Rapids has provided internet service for nearly a dozen years and upgraded WiFi equipment last year to reach farther. Outside the library, the community also has benefited from the addition of a new fiber optic line into the southern edge of the village, which has helped with cell phone service. Community leaders are working to have that line extended into the village so local businesses and organizations can leverage the increased level of service a fiber optic connection provides. 

Why is there such a need for HotSpots or internet access: “People just can’t afford the internet or can’t get good internet coverage,” she says, noting connectivity can be challenging in rural areas. Year-round users tend to be local residents who for whatever reason do not have internet connections or poor service. In the summer months, many of the borrowers are cottage renters or second-home owners who have chosen not to subscribe to internet service. “Good internet is not everywhere up here,” Miller says. “We knew there was a need up here long before people began working at home.”

How did the library pivot during COVID-19 pandemic: “It changed everything,” Miller says. Like other libraries, Elk Rapids suspended in-person programming, which has not resumed despite the ease in restrictions. The problem? Moisture was discovered behind the drywall in a basement meeting room, where most programs were held. “We’re not allowing the public in that room anymore. It’s not a healthy environment,” she says. The library pivoted to virtual programming by creating a YouTube Channel. The library’s programs include storytime and take-and-make crafts for children and poetry and meditations by Jim Ribby, a local bard. “The response has been phenomenal,” Miller says. The library’s book club moved to Zoom, only meeting in person outside on the library porch during the summer.

How does the library compare to others in rural Michigan: “For a small rural library with limited resources and space, the staff does an excellent job and is constantly looking for ways to serve the community,” says Tom Stephenson, who is library board president and broadband solutions manager for Connected Nation. The library has been able to leverage technology whenever possible and has taken advantage of grant opportunities when they’re available. Making HotSpots available to patrons without internet service goes beyond educational or entertainment needs, he says, noting many patrons needed access to telehealth services. 

Recent digital additions: Thanks to an MI-83 Technology, Libraries, and Communities grant, the library will receive five Chrome books, which patrons can check out along with a HotSpot. As part of the grant, the library also has received a virtual programming kit that will enable staff to create all kinds of virtual programs for the public. The programming kit includes a camera, laptop, green screen, a light ring, and a microphone to help users create their own programs. 

Resources used: Grants to offer and expand digital services have come from the Northland Library Cooperative, a non-profit resource sharing network of public libraries in thirteen counties in northern Michigan: the Library of Michigan and its MI-83 Technology, Libraries, and Communities grants.

The Digital Divide: Connected Nation Michigan has been working to improve digital access across the state, especially in rural areas. “For the past decade, we have used our research and data to make communities aware of the value of these services, as well as our leaders at the state and federal level,”  Stephenson says. “As we have created hundreds of Community Technology Action Plans -- we examine the types and level of services available at local libraries -- including training patrons on how to use the technology.” Connected Nation was among the organizations behind the Digital Equity Act, which set aside $2.75 billion for two grant programs to promote digital equity and increased broadband adoption. 

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