Digital bookmobile targets rural Oklahoma with library services, internet access

Michael D. Smith

In the early 1960s, people living in extremely rural parts of southern Oklahoma would visit a big red bookmobile if their library was just too far away. For some residents of Tishomingo at the time, that vehicle served as the local library until a more permanent location could be found.

Six decades later, the Southern Oklahoma Library System is returning to its roots while also keeping up with the times. Earlier this month a white van started making weekly visits to the most rural parts of the region to provide library services to new and existing patrons.

While the newest version of the SOLS bookmobile may not carry the largest selection of books each week, it does carry a resource that can be difficult for some to find outside of town: internet access.

Librarians with the Southern Oklahoma Library System staff the digital bookmobile during a stop in Dickson on Friday, Nov. 20, 2020.

Gail Oehler, executive director of SOLS, said the goal of the new digital bookmobile is to make library resources — including internet access — more accessible to a larger number of residents and patrons. 

When federal grant money became available as a result of the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, SOLS requested funds to expand wireless internet access, specifically with a vehicle-based WiFi hot spot.

“It’s part of bridging the digital divide, because there is a divide,” Oehler said. 

The library system, with branches in Ardmore, Healdton and Wilson, was awarded a $12,100 digital inclusion grant in August. 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.

Providing internet access to library patrons was a primary focus of the $290,000 Digital Inclusion Grants administered by ODL. Director Melody Kellogg said only 76% of Oklahoma households are connected to broadband Internet. 

“We already have a digital divide in Oklahoma and across the country,” Kellogg said in an August statement when the grants were awarded. “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.”

Oehler knew she wanted to expand internet access across the five-county footprint covered by the library system and applied for the grant with a plan in mind. The library system was already issuing wireless internet hot spots at select branches, but Oehler said that there was often a wait list for the popular equipment.

The library system applied for the grant to expand the availability of the devices. Another part of the grant proposal, according to Oehler, was installing some of the equipment in a library system delivery van. Once the funding came through, it was time for her IT department to get to work upgrading the van and testing the hot spots.

“After we were awarded the grant, then we spent time going to all these rural communities to test the service” Oehler said, adding that a focus was put on counties with only a single branch. Oehler and her staff had to find locations with parking, visibility and a cellular connection so the hot spots would work.

Librarians also had to work with community leaders in these areas, and Oehler said officials contacted were eager to provide help finding locations for the van.

“Atoka is our biggest county, by the way, and we only have one library in Atoka, so these are little towns further away that we can bring the van there with the materials,” she said. “Same with Johnston County. We only have one library which is in Tishomingo, but there are these outlying towns and people might not be able to get to the library.”

Once staff got the equipment installed and determined a route, they scheduled eight locations to receive visits every third Friday. When the van embarked on its maiden voyage on Nov. 6, it received 11 patrons in Caney.

The van provides more than a WiFi hot spot. Two librarians staff the vehicle and provide services much like they would inside a branch. The van is stocked with computers for patron use, a small selection of books, and even resources needed to issue new library cards.

A selection of books and an information table sit outside of the Dickson Community Center.

And considering the vehicle started as a delivery van for the library system, patrons can request materials be delivered to one of the scheduled stops.

The van will not be out this Friday but will resume the scheduled stops and city halls and community centers next week.

On Dec. 4, the van will return to Caney at 10 a.m., Wapanuka at 1 p.m., and Milburn at 3:15 p.m. On Dec. 11, the van will return to Thackerville at 10 a.m. and Ratliff City at 1:30 p.m. On Dec. 18, it will return to Stringtown at 10 a.m., Mill Creek at 1:30 p.m. and Dickson at 4 p.m.