SARATOGA COUNTY – Local libraries are finding new ways to bridge the gap for those without access to the internet.
Fast reliable internet access is a struggle for many for a variety of different reasons, but local libraries in Saratoga County are among those working on new ways for their free public internet and Wi-Fi to reach greater audiences more easily.
“In the library community We refer to it as a digital divide,” Director of the Capital District Library Council Kathleen Gundrum said. “People who don’t have access to the internet at home for whatever reason, whether its economic purposes or if they are in a rural area where they don’t have access. There’s a lot of initiatives taking place with libraries increasing their initiatives, particularly in rural communities, so the public can have access to broadband and then of course encouraging the public to come to the library and that’s part of this campaign.”
Libraries are working to expand how and where the public can have access to the internet, Gundrum said.
Digital equity is not a new issue, Southern Adirondack Library System outreach and marketing consultant Erica Freudenberger said. She explained the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the disparity between people who have regular reliable access to the internet and computers and are comfortable using them and those who don’t.
“What we’re looking at is how do we help people have good access to education, workforce information, healthcare, and just to everything that the internet provides,” Freudenberger said. “Different libraries but all of our libraries in all four counties (Saratoga, Hamilton, Warren and Washington) provide 24/7 Wi-Fi access.”
Using computers and gaining internet access brings some people to their local library. Freudenberger said they see very heavy computer usage throughout their libraries. She explained this was one of the difficulties during COVID.
“A lot people were really cut off because they didn’t have technology,” Freudenberger said. “The libraries are a main source of connection for a fair number of people.”
Rural areas in particular have challenges gaining access to the internet Freudenberger said. Libraries in some areas are able to allow people to checkout Wi-Fi hotspots to use at home, but these require the use of cell towers, so in some areas where there is no cell service they would not work, Freudenberger explained.
A number of Saratoga County libraries have come up with new solutions to the issue of internet access.
“We’ve been offering free Wi-Fi 24/7 to the public for quite some years now,” Head of children’s services at Corinth Free Library Michael Hatfield said. “And its been extremely popular I think because this entire village, the Village of Corinth is a dead spot. As far as we know we’re the only place in town that offers open Wi-Fi. The problem is that we’re only open 35 hours a week.”
The Corinth Free Library has plans to put up a space, which Hatfield described like a bus stop with seating and receptacles for charging laptops and phones. He explained they have the idea to put solar panels on top of the space which would allow people to charge their devices while they use the Wi-Fi.
The village was able to give the library some funds and helped it to apply for a grant for the rest of the money, Hatfield said. He explained the library will find out if they are awarded the grant money in the coming weeks.
The Mechanicville District Public Library is located across the parking area from senior housing, Michelle Duell, director of the Mechanicville District Public Library said
“When we upgrade our computers at the library, we bring them over to the senior center and upgrade some of their older computers,” Duell said. “We have classes for the seniors so that they can learn how to set up email, surf the internet, stay safe on the internet, and help them with their smartphones. We also show them how they can watch videos on their phone, read a book, or listen to a book on their phone. We have plans to partner with the Mechanicville Community Center to bring Wi-Fi to our parks.”
Schuylerville Public Library Director Caitlin Johnson explained about 15% of people who live in the area are without internet at home.
“Its a very rural community in upstate New York, and the past couple of years since COVID began we’ve been trying to up our game as far as helping to bridge the digital divide little bit,” Johnson said. “A lot of people were stranded at home working, schooling, even doing their health appointments from home with their internet service
The Schuylerville Public Library added Wi-Fi hot spots which can be checked out for people to use at home Johnson said. The library also took part in the American Library Association’s Libraries Transforming Communities grant and was able to install a free public Wi-Fi network at Fort Hardy Park in Schuylerville
A June 2021 report entitled Achieving Digital Equity in New York: An Outline for Collaborative Change discusses NYS Libraries efforts working on digital equity. According to the report of the 93,500 households in Saratoga County about 8.1% of households have no access to broadband at all at home. Statewide about 27% of households in New York do not subscribe to a wireline broadband access at home and 22% of households in the state do not have a desktop or laptop computer at home.