Libraries Support Lifeline as Important Step on the Path to Digital Equity
When Benjamin Franklin created the first lending library in America almost three hundred years ago, he established an institution committed to letting loose the transformational power of knowledge. To this day, public libraries stand committed to the principle that information should be available to all, regardless of where you live, how much you earn, or when you were born. Increasingly libraries provide some of that information online, through free access to ebooks, original documents like the New York Public Library’s high-definition scan of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, and even software that you can borrow virtually through the Kansas City Public Library. All of these efforts depend on affordable, accessible Internet service.
Unfortunately, millions of residents of our two cities lack Internet access at home, limiting their ability to fully benefit from not only the resources at our libraries, but the full wealth of knowledge and education available online. Millions of children across the country are assigned homework that requires the Internet to complete. We see many of those students suffering from the so-called “homework gap” in our libraries after school. We cannot hope to offer equal opportunity to education if so many of our students are unable to even complete their assignments. That is why we are so heartened by the leadership of the Federal Communication Commission who are committed to helping all Americans gain meaningful Internet access.
The recently announced Lifeline reforms will provide support to low-income individuals who struggle to balance an Internet subscription with other monthly necessities. This home broadband access is a crucial step toward bridging the digital divide.
Alongside the FCC’s work, libraries are also working to address multiple fronts of the digital divide. We provide free computer access and free Internet access in libraries. To help patrons make meaningful use of these services, we offer free training classes that cover everything from “Internet for Beginners” to website creation and HTML. And we are digitizing more collections so that more people in more places can find and access the information they contain.
These days, library efforts even include helping patrons get access to Internet at home. In New York City, our three library systems have lent 10,000 mobile hotspots to patrons across the five boroughs. Our goal is to increase access to the underserved to at-home Internet service, service they can’t get at the library once their neighborhood branch closes for the day. We know that extended periods of access after school and after work help bridge the homework gap for kids, and help parents take care of tasks online, from taking classes to looking up information and directions.
Kansas City Public Library has developed a hotspot lending program for students in the local school district, where 70 percent of families lack home Internet access. Students automatically receive library cards when they enroll, but they are not able to fully take advantage of our research and homework resources without an Internet connection. In partnership with Kansas City Public Schools and two local nonprofits, we are providing hotspot devices to a select group of students and their families for the duration of the school year. This has proven to be effective in closing the homework gap and has opened the door to opportunity for entire households. But the expense and management make this model difficult to scale without home broadband being part of the mix.
In addition to its work on access, the Kansas City Public Library also promotes digital literacy through its computer classes and Digital Media Lab. The Digital Media Lab brings teens access to technologies from video production equipment to 3D printing machines, giving them the opportunity to become creators, not simply consumers, of online content.
We love hearing stories from our patrons about how this access helped them find a job online, or finish classes for a work certification, or helped their child keep up with their homework. Yet we also know that library hotspot loans alone cannot take care of the millions in our cities who don’t have broadband access at home. This is why the FCC’s Lifeline program is so crucial.
Increasing home Internet access will not end the digital divide. Much more must be done to improve the digital literacy skills of our patrons so that they can make meaningful use of that access. As libraries we have work to do to ensure the free and open access to books and information. But our libraries, and libraries across the country, stand ready to meet these needs. We are proud to have strong partners at the FCC committed to an equitable digital America.
Anthony W. Marx is President of the New York Public Library. R. Crosby Kemper III is the Executive Director of the Kansas City (MO) Public Library.