Megan LeMaster, Division Director of Research and Development for Harris County Public Library, strives to increase the number of people comfortable checking out devices from the library.

Apr 25 2022

Libraries Loan Mobile Devices and Laptops as a Vital Service

Officials see internet access as critical to digital access in many communities.

The internet was supposed to make libraries obsolete. “The only burning reason for a physical trip to the library will be to see a copy of a needed book that has not yet been digitized,” opined MIT Technology Review in 2005.

Perhaps, when the assumption was that everyone would have a computer and broadband would be pervasive, but that’s not how it worked out. Ironically, libraries have become a vital link between the internet that was supposed to snuff them out and the public that needs what the internet offers. And during the pandemic, despite widespread and prolonged library closures, their role in bridging the digital divide proved greater than anyone expected.

“When the Federal Communications Commission set up the Emergency Connectivity Fund, we did an assessment of the needs of our county, and they were pretty staggering,” explains Megan LeMaster, division director of research and development for Harris County Public Library, a network of 26 branches outside Houston. “More than 600,000 households in our area don’t have adequate internet, and nearly 400,000 don’t have computers at home. They’ve been trying to do everything on their cellphones.”

For Lessa Kanani’opua Pelayo-Lozada, president of the American Library Association and adult services assistant manager at the Palos Verdes Library District in Southern California, internet access is a matter of inclusion.

“It may be a challenge for libraries to continue to generate funding going forward,” she says. “But a big part of that challenge is creating an understanding of what digital equity looks like and the essentialness of technology to our communities’ futures.”

In late 2020, as the pandemic was taking off, almost one-third of public libraries offered hotspots for checkout, according to the 2020 Public Library Technology Survey, published by the Public Library Association, a division of the ALA. Current figures are not yet available, but based on programs launched nationwide, that share is surely growing.

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How Harris County Public Library Is Building Digital Equity

When the pandemic shut down businesses and resulted in widespread layoffs, people relied on internet access to look for jobs, acquire new skills, register for vaccines and stay informed. Already, public workstations in libraries had become an important way for many to stay connected, but when libraries had to close for COVID-19 — many for as long as a year or more — they used pandemic relief funds to offer computing resources to the community.

“One of the first things we did was expand our Wi-Fi footprint, so it encompassed not just our branch locations, but also the parking lots in any parks and community centers that were adjacent,” LeMaster says. That way, people who had their own mobile devices but lacked access to a reliable internet connection could get online safely from outside their local library branch.

“The natural next step,” LeMaster adds, “was to offer laptops and wireless hotspots for checkout.”

In February, Harris County Public Libraries started HCPL Connected, funded by a $30 million grant from the Emergency Connectivity Fund. The HCPL Connected program comprises 40,000 Inseego 5G MiFi M2000 T-Mobile hotspots and will eventually include 15,000 Dell Chromebook 3100 2-in-1 convertible tablet notebooks. HCPL created a special, single-use library card for the program to limit the amount of information participants needed to reveal.

“We wanted to lower the threshold and widen the net of people who will feel comfortable checking out devices and taking advantage of the program,” LeMaster says, because ultimately, the No. 1 goal is to put the devices in the hands of people who need them. “Both the hotspots and Chromebooks will go out on lifetime checkouts. We’re not necessarily expecting to see them returned.”

The challenge for HCPL isn’t device management, it’s ensuring the devices remain useful. The program’s existing funding ends June 30, which means without new funding, the hotspots will cease working on T-Mobile’s network. The Chromebooks will continue to function provided the user has a Wi-Fi connection.

“In a perfect world, the FCC would extend the program,” LeMaster says. In the meantime, the library system is exploring other ways to ensure its hotspots stay connected.

EXPLORE: Logitech Combo Touch for remote and mobile devices.

Los Angeles Public Library Is Providing Mobile Devices Across Communities

The Los Angeles Public Library runs a similar program, Tech2Go, which offers hotspots and Chromebooks to adults who need them in underserved areas of the city. LAPL is rolling out 2,000 hotspot-Chromebook bundles, available for six months at a time.

“The feedback has been very positive,“ says Edwin Rodarte, senior librarian for emerging technologies and collections, who oversees the program. “We get emails from people who tell us they are between jobs, and the Tech2Go program is helping them figure out the next step in their careers.”

Like Harris County Public Library, LAPL used the Emergency Connectivity Fund to expand its program, which means it can’t charge the public for unreturned devices, Rodarte says. “It wasn’t our money to begin with, so they’re free to keep the devices.”

Still, LAPL uses a mobile device management system, including IBM Security MaaS360 and Google Admin, to locate certain devices and wipe them remotely if necessary. Before the pandemic, LAPL offered Apple iPad Minis for checkout, and nearly two-thirds were broken or lost. “We could tell one ended up in Guatemala,” Rodarte says.

The library doesn’t track usage data or perform any ongoing monitoring. It does, however, configure filters to comply with the Children’s Internet Protection Act. “Outside of that, the user has total control,” Rodarte says.

Megan LeMaster
More than 600,000 households in our area don’t have adequate internet, and nearly 400,000 don’t have computers at home.”

Megan LeMaster Division Director of Research and Development, Harris County Public Library

Denver Public Library Is Increasing Connectivity and Device Access

During the pandemic, the Denver Public Library system, which was forced to close for more than a year, set up tables outside certain branches where the public could use the libraries’ laptops and Wi-Fi to get online. It, too, offered Chromebooks and hotspots that people could check out and pick up without entering the building. And it added hotspot connectivity to its three bookmobiles and moved them around to communities that needed access.

“We’ve been taking very purposeful steps in our neighborhoods,” says Michelle Jeske, Denver’s city librarian and past president of the Public Library Association. “Going forward, being out in the community is going to be a bigger part of bridging the digital divide, not always asking people to come to the library.”

As the pandemic recedes, Denver Public Library has also been growing its ideaLAB makerspaces, free facilities with online connectivity and high-end workstations for computer design, as well as 3D printers, laser cutters and more.

“People thought the internet was going to kill libraries,” says Jeske, “but it’s had the exact opposite effect.”

DIVE DEEPER: Addressing digital inequity through the library of things.

Photography by Phoebe Rourke

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