The Hewitt Public Library received a second round of funding last week for its Affordable Connectivity Program, which allows library patrons to check out laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots to take home.
Library manager Waynette Ditto said the program aims to expand internet access in the community by removing cost barriers and adding another potential Wi-Fi option for rural areas. According to the 2010 census, nearly one-fifth of McLennan County residents live in rural areas, which often do not have easy access to high-speed broadband. With hotspots and Chromebooks, patrons can effectively borrow a Wi-Fi signal from the library.
The new $9,063 library award from the Universal Service Administration Co., a nonprofit organization designated by the Federal Communications Commission to administer money to areas with connectivity needs, will maintain hotspots of the library in service until October next year.
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The new funding follows the $184,231 the library received last year from the FCC’s Emergency Connectivity Fund, an initiative included in the U.S. bailout approved by Congress in March 2021. The initial funding more important enabled the library to purchase 200 Chromebooks and 100 hotspots. .
Hotspots use the 5G cellular signal to generate a Wi-Fi network that Chromebooks can connect to, allowing library patrons to surf the internet slowly or without internet.
Checking electronics works much the same as checking a book: patrons 18 and older can check them with a Hewitt Public Library card for three weeks. Late fees still apply and contributors must follow an acceptable use policy when using Chromebooks and hotspots.
Ditto said improving internet connectivity and technology literacy in the Hewitt community has been a mission of the library for nearly 13 years. After the Great Recession that began in late 2007, Ditto saw a number of people who lost their jobs struggle to adjust to the new role of technology in the hiring process when looking for a new job.
“There were a lot of skilled workers who were ignored in the age of technology because they were skilled, so they didn’t really need or want technology,” Ditto said. “We started getting calls from people all over McLennan County who wanted to use our computers because every time they went to fill out an application or forms for unemployment, they were all on the line. Many of these people didn’t even know what a mouse was. They didn’t know how to use a computer, let alone have one at home.
At the time, the Hewitt Public Library had three computers and a slow internet connection. Ditto says she contacted the Texas State Library and was successful in securing a grant to purchase 10 laptops for use in the library. The State Library also sent a trainer from Austin to teach classes in Excel, Word, and the basics of using a computer. Local library staff eventually took over those classes, and they continue to this day, Ditto said.
When work began on the Hewitt Library building about six years ago, the goal was to ensure the library had high-speed internet access and enough computers and other electronic devices for the community, Ditto said. Today, the library has a computer lab, laptops, two 3D printers, a large-format printer capable of printing posters and banners, and a stop-motion animation machine. .
During the initial shutdowns for COVID-19, a problem arose, Ditto said. The library, along with schools and businesses, had closed to slow the virus, forcing the quarantined world to go online to conduct daily business.
“People have been lost without connectivity,” Ditto said. “I was coming to work and our library parking lot was full of people trying to connect to our Wi-Fi. They were sitting in our parking lot doing business. We had parents who didn’t have wifi at home, so schools sent a tablet with the child, but they didn’t have wifi.
“It was really heartbreaking, because my job as a library manager is to serve people, and we serve people with all kinds of needs. We couldn’t really go and help them because at that time we didn’t know how this virus was traveling. »
Ditto said she started looking for grants to fund computers and hotspots the library could provide. With help again from the Texas State Library, the Hewitt Library has joined approximately 500 other libraries across the United States in connecting to FCC programs aimed at providing free Internet access to people who cannot afford it. afford or who live in a rural area without good broadband access.
Eventually, the Hewitt Public Library would receive the $184,231 grant from the FCC in November and use it to purchase 200 Chromebooks and 100 hotspots, which arrived at the library in January.
Since hotspots and Chromebooks came to the library, a range of people have used them for a variety of reasons, Ditto said.
“We checked out Chromebooks for homeschoolers and for private schools that might be a bit small and not big enough to get funding on their own,” Ditto said. “We’ve checked out Chromebooks with companies that host career fairs. We’ve tested Chromebooks for seniors who can now connect with family at home. We’ve checked out some at retirement homes So really anyone has a need.