Bridging the digital divide – a new chapter in the life of the public library

Books are amazing things: little worlds of knowledge or fantasy you can pick up and take with you. Libraries have always acted as custodians of that wisdom and wonder – but here in the 21st century, there’s a lot more to what they can offer.

And the role of the public library has evolved over time. “We continue to do all the things that we traditionally did, but we’ve expanded our role as the world has shifted and become more digital,” says Michelle Jeske, the Denver City Librarian and president of the Public Library Association.

As we move online at an even faster rate, knowledge, entertainment and opportunities for education and employment are found on the internet. Those living in well-connected, affluent places may have come to take internet access for granted. But there is a digital divide in the U.S. that has left people at a disadvantage – particularly since the arrival of COVID-19.

Digital divide

Finding ways to overcome that divide in a sustainable, community-led way could help bring the benefits of the internet to those who need it most. One solution is to use technologies such as TV white space to facilitate wireless broadband – as Microsoft’s Airband Initiative is doing. With this program, broadband is brought directly to individuals and, more economically, to a community hub such as a library, which can then act as a wireless hot spot.

[READ MORE: Microsoft Airband: An annual update on connecting rural America]

In 2019, Microsoft Philanthropies donated $400,000 to the Public Library Association to support more widespread connectivity alongside $20,000 each from Microsoft’s Airband and TechSpark initiatives. The money is helping the association deliver much-needed tech equipment – typically laptops and portable Wi-Fi hot spots – to a network of public libraries in communities in rural parts of the country.

The rollout of hot spots has become even more important now, and the PLA has become a key partner to Microsoft in its global aim to give 25 million people access to digital skills training.

“Suddenly, the lifeline for so many people across this country has been cut off,” says Jeske, who, as Denver City Librarian, oversees a system that serves over 4.4 million people a year. “Public libraries had to shut their doors for public health reasons, so it was great that we had this platform to jump off from.”

Some of the support from Microsoft is being used to extend Wi-Fi outside of buildings in libraries that previously didn’t have that ability – so people with their own devices can plug into those access points.

In Denver, Jeske says, “We are now offering laptop use outside of 12 of our 26 locations, because it’s safe.”

[READ MORE: The path to prosperity through access to high-speed internet]

Benefits in kind

Deploying fast broadband infrastructure in places with low population density is expensive for network operators.

Vaughn Public Library in Ashland, Wisconsin, is one of the libraries taking part in the Microsoft program. Nestled on the southern shores of Lake Superior, this town looks much different than it did decades ago, when its business was paper mills. Ashland’s population is now 8,000, down from about 12,000.

The director of library services at the Vaughn Public Library Foundation, Sarah Adams, has recently introduced a program to get people started on the path to digital literacy. She says she is driven by a real passion to improve access to learning and technology for all.

“If you don’t understand how to navigate a form, or maybe just know which website is the actual website you need, you can find yourself locked out of things that might improve your life,” she says.

It’s been really exciting to see how quickly public libraries have pivoted and been innovative during a time of huge crisis

Vaughn Public Library’s first beginner’s course went well with attendees. “Keep doing classes!” wrote one on their evaluation form. “We seniors need challenges, and help!”

The coronavirus pandemic put a lot of things on hold, of course. But most libraries have still been running virtual programming and experimenting with what works best in their communities. Vaughn Public Library’s services include a mobile computer lab with six laptops, which means it can reach more people.

Michelle Jeske, back in Denver, says: “It’s been really exciting to see how quickly public libraries have pivoted and been innovative during a time of huge crisis.”

READ MORE: What telephones and television can teach us about the adoption of broadband]

Geographical reach

Cara Burton is the system director at another program participant, Eastern Shore Public Library in Accomack, Virginia. This long, skinny peninsula has Chesapeake Bay to the west and the Atlantic to its east.

While there are areas of poverty and deprivation – over 90% of school kids in Accomack qualify for help with school lunches, according to the Virginia Department of Education – there’s a substantial population of older, well-educated retirees, too. It makes for a diverse set of needs.

“We have the people that come in because they want to get a book off the shelf and take it home or sit out on the beach and read a great novel,” Burton says. “Then we have the people that come in to use the internet and they’re doing all sorts of things – from hunting for jobs to watching a video or emailing their family.”

With this library now open again, one of the things Burton wants to do is foster a culture of reading throughout the community. She describes this as being part of her vision.

“That’s something that has impressed me when I’ve visited places like Scotland or Iceland – there’s more of a culture of reading. So we need to create more spaces to read, and make sure children are encouraged to read, that families read together. Developing a culture of reading is something I truly believe will help our economic issues here.”

She also believes that the recent pandemic has highlighted why better access to the internet is needed. “Some people have been frustrated because the schools here aren’t able to offer online classes. That’s because, at home, the kids don’t have the internet and they don’t have the computers.”

Providing access to shared spaces – whether that’s on- or offline – is part of what makes public libraries such a valuable resource. As Jeske puts it: “We are that public space that anyone can walk into.”

For more on closing the rural broadband gap, visit On the Issues. And follow @MSFTIssues on Twitter.