Libraries, the National Digital Platform, and Inclusion
20 Pages Posted: 24 Mar 2017 Last revised: 17 Aug 2017
Date Written: March 23, 2017
Wireless hotspot lending programs are gaining popularity through library systems in several major cities in the U.S. Portable hotspot devices allow a patron to “take home” the Internet from the library, and are premised on providing free, cellular-based mobile access for Internet-ready devices in the home, usually to people who indicate they lack home-based broadband. In 2015, the New York Public Library partnered with the Maine State Library and the Kansas State Library to fund rural hotspot lending programs in small rural community libraries.
Extending the reach of Internet-based services in this fashion is a new addition to rural libraries’ functions, and this research seeks to how these programs impact the users and small communities where they operate. Extremely rural areas typically have less robust Internet services available commercially and lower home broadband adoption levels; research suggests the prices for fixed broadband services are sometimes much higher than the local populations can afford. Local libraries are typically the only site where people in these communities can access the Internet for free and/or at reasonably fast speeds. As more educational, health, government and commercial services migrate to and assume user Internet access, libraries stand out as particularly prized sites for these purposes in rural towns.
Under a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, our research assesses hotspot lending initiatives in 6 rural libraries in Maine and 18 libraries in Kansas. Most of the communities in the sample face several economic challenges. The hotspot programs themselves are fairly small (as are the communities in which they operate), but they provide insights into the role and operations of information seeking in areas bereft of many alternative sources while also providing a way to examine how libraries extend Internet access into underserved areas.
The research investigates 1) how rural libraries implement and operate a hotspot-lending program; 2) their potential economic impacts in the community; 3) and larger community outcomes that might be associated with increased connectivity in rural areas. Our team of researchers investigated these outcomes through site visits to the libraries and their counties and towns, where librarians and local stakeholders - elected officials, school personnel, local telecommunications providers – provided qualitative data regarding Internet access, the hotspot program, and local information needs. In our current research phase, we are conducting focus groups with users in several sites, and also developing a quantitative database by surveying a broader population of users.
In this paper we share the results of focus groups with patrons who utilized the device and characterize how this particular program may or may not influence broader information seeking and the use of various Internet-delivered services. Although our research project will not conclude until January of 2018, we will have sufficient data by fall, 2017 in order to characterize the Internet environment of our rural sites. We will address where libraries in rural America “fit” in the circulation and retrieval of information, and more broadly in the national picture of digital inclusion.
Data collection for this study is still ongoing, but preliminary findings from qualitative interviews with library staff have resulted in clear definitions of the challenges and opportunities unique to remote areas implementing a hotspot-lending program. Our qualitative data from focus group meetings and personal interviews detail myriad creative ways that rural hotspot users and local institutions find and utilize connectivity that affects the civic, and sometimes economic, affairs of their households and their communities.
Keywords: libraries, digital inclusion, policy
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