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Community Networks 17 March 2021

Libraries Are Bridging the Digital Divide

By Audra WilliamsGuest Author
Charlie MullerFormer Program Specialist, Internet Growth
Libraries and Community Networks are teaming up and discovering new ways to connect the unconnected

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, libraries across the world shut down their buildings to limit transmission of the virus. What did not shut down were the crucial services they provided. Instead, librarians stepped up and zeroed in on their passion to serve the public, acting as first responders and amplifying their steadfast commitment to ensure people have access to public information.

A year into this pandemic, Internet access is crucial. So many people need to be online for everything from school and work to getting updates about vaccinations. But lifesaving lockdown measures are presenting challenges to the ways many of us have been able to access the Internet in public spaces.

As COVID-19 exacerbates issues associated with lack of Internet access, libraries are playing even more of a key role in getting local communities online. This has happened in multiple creative ways, from turning bookmobile vans into roaming hot spots delivering Wi-Fi throughout the community, to extending library Wi-Fi access into the parking lot and beyond.

Libraries have a long history of working closely with community networks to provide affordable Internet access to entire communities. The pandemic has reminded us of their critical function providing essential resources, educational materials, and Internet access. It also has highlighted the different ways that libraries can support community networks.

Shrinking the Digital Divide with Community Networks

Community networks are cooperatively owned and managed networks that ensure a community has access to the opportunities and resources provided by the Internet. They’re being set up all the time by people in unserved and underserved areas around the world.

In Georgia, the Internet Society’s Georgian Chapter has partnered with several local Internet organizations to connect the remote and mountainous region of Tusheti to the Internet. In Zimbabwe, a small program started as an Internet cafe and has grown to provide training in computer literacy for teachers at more than 200 primary and secondary schools. In the Patagonia region of Argentina, residents of El Cuy built a network that continues to grow to meet the community’s needs and connect hundreds to the Internet.

Maybe you’re already part of a Community Network, or maybe you want to start one. Either way, your local library can play a key role!

Libraries as Nodes in a Community Network

Not every  local library has Internet access. But every local library is a community institution that seeks to connect people and bring information to everyone. There are different ways that a local library can also become a community network hub, and one of them is by turning their buildings into Wi-Fi transmitters.

Digital Village Associates Co-Founder Don Means is a big booster of libraries as expanded wireless nodes. “If you mount a regular Wi-Fi router in an open window or the side of the building,” he explains, “you can get a signal measured in 10s of meters, maybe a couple 100 meters, from the building. But why not 1000 meters, or several 1000 meters from the building?”

With libraries using antennas or routers to extend the range of connectivity, community members can get nearby digital access. Or better yet, access the Internet from home as the wireless signal is boosted into their community.

There are great examples of this sort of partnership in action. Like in Perafita, Spain, where the Perafita Public Library, due to its location, was well-positioned to install antennas for the central node of the community network. Or in the Akwapim North District in Ghana, where a non-governmental organization is leading a project that brings wireless connectivity to key anchor institutions in the area.

Five Reasons Libraries Make Great Community Network Partners

Libraries are particularly well-positioned to offer their help and support to Community Networks. In 2020, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) published a briefing to explain why. Here are some of the key reasons:

1. Libraries are places of safety and comfort. When a Community Network is able to partner with a local library, the library brings credibility and legitimacy along with it.

2. Libraries can help tell local residents about the potential value of Community Network projects, and help residents find and access information on how to build them themselves.

3. Libraries are fundamentally open and democratic. They can serve as spaces for gathering, coordination and deliberation, or hosting workshops.

4. Libraries can offer storage areas to keep physical equipment, as well an essential electricity supply. They can even provide a location for antennas.

5. Libraries can facilitate key connections, from securing grants for network setup, to negotiating prices with Internet providers, to acquiring licenses for antennae installation.

Providing Local Content on Local Servers

Libraries haven’t stopped at affixing routers and antennas to their buildings. They have also become distributors of digital content by taking materials from their collections and making them available on the community networks. This is particularly valuable when that content is relevant and useful to students. If this content is stored on local servers, someone could even access it without needing to access the broader Internet. This means faster connection speeds and better access to content relevant to people in the community.

Under their Ministry of Education, the Ghanian library service has focused resources on software development and online content creation. Executive Director of the Ghana Library Authority Hayford Siaw, says, “If this pandemic had happened five years ago, nothing would have been happening at the library and all our facilities would have been shuttered. But in 2018, through a policy direction of the government, we decided to develop our digital library.”

The library service developed their own app, which is now widely used throughout Ghana. Beside the use of the app, the library has also launched a writing competition through its website to encourage young people in “curating and developing stories about their experiences about this period.”

Initiatives such as these are successful when governments have the vision and capacity to invest in online content this way. But what about when they don’t? Maintaining infrastructure and creating content can get expensive. To help with that, libraries have proven to be vital in helping community networks secure funding.

Libraries as Funding Partners for Community Networks

Maintaining reliable community network access requires reliable funding. This funding is often dependent on building a large membership to better distribute costs. Libraries can help grow these memberships by attracting potential new community network members through their own member base.

Libraries can also connect community networks with government funding. One example is the E-rate program in the United States. According to the American Library Association, “the E-rate program, also known as the Universal Services Schools and Libraries support mechanism, is the program that provides discounts to public libraries as well as K-12 schools on telecommunications services, Internet access, Wi-Fi equipment, and some closely related costs like internal cabling.” In the state of Georgia, the local government has invested money in connecting all their libraries.

Another way libraries can help is to by connecting community networks and the private sector. In the United States, the Public Library Association (PLA), provides hardware and digital skills training and resources to rural libraries, helping rural populations reap the benefits of broadband Internet connectivity. This is possible thanks to a $400,000 donation from Microsoft Philanthropies through the DigitaLead: Rural Libraries Creating New Possibilities program.

And as Scott G. Allen, Deputy Director of the PLA, announced in April 2020, the Microsoft Public Wi-Fi Access Micro Grant Programming provided “$120,000 to help public libraries in rural communities with hardware and support to install public Wi-Fi access points on or near library grounds.” 

Libraries are Closing the Digital Divide One Community at a Time

The Canal neighborhood of San Rafael, California is a great example of the potential of libraries and community networks working together. It is an area with many low-income families, where only 43% of homes have a computer. In wealthier neighborhoods nearby that number jumps to 90%. Students in the Canal neighborhood are facing devastating educational setbacks as they are forced to pivot to online learning.

Omar Carrera is determined not to let that happen. He is Executive Director of the Canal Alliance, a non-profit dedicated to supporting Latino immigrants in the United States. This summer, his organization partnered with other local groups and created a free community Wi-Fi network. It uses Wi-Fi access points attached to street lights, with root locations set up at library branches in neighborhood schools.

This community network will connect over 2,000 students and their families in advance of the upcoming school year. And the benefits extend past the virtual classroom. Residents can access the network for services like unemployment and rental assistance, and information on the latest local health orders.

Work with Your Local Library to Start a Community Network

People around the world are building Community Networks to bridge their Digital Divide, and libraries are playing a key role. Find out how you can be a part of it!

Image by Susan Yin via Unsplash

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Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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