Public libraries across Georgia have played an essential role in providing internet access during COVID-19, especially in rural and underserved areas that lack basic connectivity. This has been especially evident during times of distance learning and business shutdowns, when people needed to access public Wi-Fi to complete work.
For the 35,000 residents of Harris County, Georgia, the local library has been a lifeline during COVID-19 closures. The two-year-old facility is in Hamilton, a rural town with around 1,100 residents located just north of Columbus, Georgia.
“To say libraries are still offering a vital service during the pandemic would be an understatement,” said Ryan Willoughby, the executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Georgia, Inc. “There is only one public Wi-Fi spot where I live, and that is the Harris County Public Library – for the entire county.”
During the statewide shutdown, Willoughby spent several hours a day using the library’s parking lot Wi-Fi access to do his work. A majority of Harris County does not have access to broadband internet apart from unreliable cellular options, and broad swaths have no internet access at all.
Recognizing this need, Georgia Public Library Service has dedicated federal CARES Act funding, along with state and private grant funding, to a variety of technology projects through the Libraries Without Walls grant. The funding aims to boost the connectivity needs of our public libraries to better serve their community’s needs in five focus areas:
- Bringing libraries up to a standard level of Wi-Fi connection and statistics gathering.
- Providing Chromebooks so libraries can create a lending program for patrons.
- Migrating libraries from outdated email and productivity tools to the cloud-based G Suite from Google.
- Supporting projects that embrace innovative technology to address the changing needs of libraries.
- Using Wi-Fi expansion technologies to boost the internet beyond the library.
Grants have already been awarded for 11 tech innovation projects totaling $186,000, from network hardware upgrades to tech loaning programs.
Two of the 11 recipients are the Sara Hightower Regional Library System and Oconee Regional Library System.
The Sara Hightower Regional Library System, located in northwest Georgia, will use the grant to provide internet hotspots for checkout.
“A number of our patrons live in areas where internet access is not available,” said Delana Sissel, director of the Sara Hightower Library System. “Our library serves three counties with many people who need these hotspots to be able to complete their work and studies. This service to our community will ensure educational opportunities are not missed due to poverty or lack of access.”
The Oconee Regional Library System will use their Library Without Walls grant to fund a Tech to Go program. The library will combine an assortment of useful technology and guide materials that patrons can check out just like a book. Examples include at-home internet access kits for school, job hunting, research, and productivity; digital photography and digital media creation and editing; kid-friendly stop-motion animation kits and tutorials; outdoor adventure kits including a GoPro; and digital music production.
You can learn more about grantees and their projects here.