Library system to expand internet access outside of branches

Michael D. Smith
Alyson Hayes-Blankenship holds a wireless internet hot spot. A recent grant will allow the Southern Oklahoma Library System to provide additional hot spots for library card holders to check out the equipment for up to a week at a time.

About half of American adults in 2000 said they used the internet, according to the Pew Research Center. By 2019, about 90% of adults said they were using the internet. 

While ubiquitous for those attending classes or doing work online during a bizarre 2020, some in the most rural parts of southern Oklahoma may just live too far away from affordable internet service.

A recent grant awarded to the Southern Oklahoma Library System is expected to help narrow the gap between high speed internet access and community members who lack access to the increasingly important resource. Eight library branches in five counties will soon see internet access checked out, like a book, for a week at a time.

“People can do their homework, a lot of people are doing school from home, they can apply for jobs, they can surf the internet, whatever they need to do,” said SOLS Executive Director Gail Oehler on Tuesday.

The library system, with branches in Ardmore, Healdton and Wilson, received a $12,100 digital inclusion grant, according to a Monday statement. The grant, part of the $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief package approved by Congress earlier this year, was administered by the Oklahoma Department of Libraries last month.

While hot spots have already been available at three branches, Oehler said there is often a waiting list for the equipment to be checked out. The digital inclusion grant will not only make more hot spots available at those branches, but all eight branches will soon offer the equipment to card holders.

While many of the 60 Oklahoma grantees will purchase hot spots, computers and laptops, SOLS will be implementing a mobile WiFi hot spot to make access even more widely available. Oehler said the system will use an existing van as an updated “book-mobile” to offer wireless internet access beyond library branches.

“That van won’t really be here around (Ardmore) but go to our remote areas like Thackerville, in Love County, or Fox. Areas where people are just a little bit further out from the library,” Oehler said.

Providing internet access to library patrons was a primary focus of the $290,000 Digital Inclusion Grants administered by the Oklahoma Department of Libraries. Director Melody Kellogg said in Monday’s statement that only 76% of Oklahoma households are connected to broadband Internet. 

“We already have a digital divide in Oklahoma and across the country,” Kellogg said. “The pandemic has just made the divide harsher since libraries and other places that offer this free access may be closed or only offering limited services at this time.”

SOLS and many other libraries temporarily closed in March as the pandemic first came to Oklahoma. Oehler said the phased reopening in the weeks and months later has been welcomed by patrons eager to resume using library services.

But that reopening plan also meant extra costs for personal protective equipment or cleaning supplies. The state library department distributed $60,000 in grants to dozens of institutions over the summer to assist with many of these costs, with SOLS receiving a $4,000 grant to cover these costs.

While masks and hand sanitizer was not necessarily an expected aspect of library management, Oehler said a longtime goal of her system has been to expand internet access even away from the library.

“You have to move forward as the technology changes. It’s been a plan, and we’re just grateful that the grant was available. We’re tickled that we’re one of the recipients,” said Oehler.