Libraries Connect Their Communities with WiFi, Even from Closed Branches

The lights are out at libraries across the country, but the WiFi signal is staying strong even during a time of unprecedented closures.

Exterior of McAllen Public Library, TX
McAllen Public Library, TX, recently teamed up with the local school district to install WiFi access points throughout the city. Many patrons are also accessing WiFi from the main branch's parking lot.

The lights are out at libraries across the country, but the WiFi signal is staying strong even during a time of unprecedented closures.

As social isolation measures recommended by public health authorities spread across the country to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus, library systems from coast to coast are shutting their doors to patrons. But that doesn't mean services have been put on hold—libraries have staff working remotely to provide access to online resources such as ebooks or tutoring materials for kids.

But such access is only useful to patrons who have a connection to the internet, potentially leaving those who depend on library WiFi out in the cold. To ensure they’re still serving as many in their community as they can during this pandemic, many library systems have left their WiFi up and running, allowing patrons to access the internet from nearby spaces such as courtyards and parking lots.

The practice has the official endorsement of the American Library Association (ALA), which said in a statement from its executive board “Libraries can and should leave their WiFi networks on even when their buildings are closed wherever possible.... In these unprecedented times, we should take whatever steps we can to leverage our resources to maximize benefit to our communities—particularly for those with the fewest resources.” The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has also weighed in to reassure libraries they can do so without endangering their e-rate funding.

In Oregon, where citizens are under a statewide “stay at home” order issued by Gov. Kate Brown, the Multnomah County Library quickly made the decision that WiFi would stay on at all branch locations. IT support staff are managing the connections remotely to keep them running during regular branch hours. The same is true across the nation.

“We’re used to seeing people use the library WiFi connection from the parking lot on Sundays, when we’re closed, so we knew this was a use case for people in our community already,” said Samantha McCoy, director of the West Caldwell Public Library in New Jersey. “So when we started preparing for this closure, it wasn’t even a question.”

It’s a similar story at the New Orleans Public Library, where communications director John Marc Sharpe reported that community members have long taken advantage of WiFi signals that “bleed” out of branches and can be accessed 24 hours a day.

“Before our locations were closed due to COVID-19, we didn’t publicly promote this fact because it wasn’t something we could guarantee would be working after hours,” Sharpe told LJ. “With the library closures and the diminished levels of WiFi accessibility elsewhere around New Orleans, we do plan to begin publicly sharing the information with our partners and the public so more people can use it.”

In most systems, keeping the WiFI on isn’t adding any strain to the lives of remote workers. King County Library System (KCLS), WA, spokesperson Sarah Thomas told LJ that “Our ITS department is managing WiFi across the system as they normally would.”

Even smaller systems like West Caldwell report no trouble keeping the WiFi running for patrons without anyone stepping foot in a library building. “We have a very stable connection that our staff can manage from home, and that has never seemed like a better investment than it does these days,” McCoy told LJ.

GOING THE EXTRA MILE

While many libraries are maintaining their standard WiFi connections, some systems are going further, adjusting their equipment setups and installing new gear to strengthen their WiFi signals. Dianne Connery, director of the Pottsboro Public Library, told LJ that the 3,500 patrons the library serves near the border of Texas and Oklahoma have consistently valued the technology access the library provides over the book selection.

While Pottsboro hasn’t closed yet, the system is operating on a "by appointment" basis. Patrons schedule times to come in and use five public computers that staff have moved to different corners of the library, and these are cleaned after every use. Connery reports that Pottsboro has also seen an uptick in users accessing WiFi from the parking lot. To meet that demand, her staff installed a new WiFi access point outside of the building this week to increase the strength of signal for those patrons.

Pottsboro Library is not just boosting its own WiFi signal. When Connery and her staff got word that local schools were also running into trouble accessing the internet, they promptly reactivated 10 previously retired WiFi hotspots and loaned them out to local teachers to help their classrooms stay connected.

Elsewhere in Texas, the McAllen Public Library is closed to the public, but staff are still reporting to the main branch, which is housed in a space that was once a Walmart. Director Kate Allen says her team is used to seeing patrons use the WiFi from their copious parking lot, but that the coronavirus pandemic has caused a surge in that use case. Starting on March 20, the library teamed with McAllen’s city and school district to install a bevy of new access points around town, including a set of new hotspots that made WiFi more accessible and reliable from the parking lot.

Allen and her team have also extended the loan period for the library’s 50 WiFi hotspots, keeping them out in the community rather than languishing in an equipment room.

While ALA floated the idea of using bookmobiles to provide access farther afield in its letter to the FCC, the agency declined to weigh in on it, and librarians LJ spoke to were not considering that option, citing the difficulties of deciding where to offer access and a reluctance to risk the health of staff driving and operating the bookmobile.

SOCIAL BUT DISTANT

To use library WiFi, community members may be defying instructions to shelter in place, and library branches may become de facto gathering spaces that remote staff are unable to monitor to enforce six-foot social distancing guidelines.

Thomas acknowledged that “KCLS staff are not currently working in library buildings, therefore we are unable to comment on whether users are following proper social distancing measures.”

McCoy drove by the West Caldwell library last week, and reported that internet users in their parking lot were all in their cars, parked well away from one another.

With internet access vital for individuals trying to access online school lessons and file unemployment claims, McCoy maintains that keeping the WiFi on is an essential library service, and one her team will continue to provide.

“We’re all trying to meet the mission of the library while we’re not able to be in the library, and that’s forcing us to rethink things on the fly,” said McCoy. “It’s a trying time for everyone, but it’s also an opportunity for librarians to reinvent ourselves and connect to our communities in new ways.”

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