ME West Library Update 2The digital inequity gap continues to widen in rural towns due to a lack of accessible and affordable broadband connections. Libraries are the place many people turn to when they are unable to afford a computer or can’t get reliable internet access. Individuals from low- to moderate-income families are less likely to have access to a broad suite of technologies, and libraries can play a key role in closing this gap.

Similarly, many rural libraries working with limited budgets struggle to bring updated technology and reliable broadband to members who rely on the internet to stay connected in their daily lives. To help increase broadband access, digital literacy and inclusion efforts, the Center is working with 11 public libraries in Oxford County through the Maine West initiative. Preliminary interviews conducted this winter with librarians identified new laptops, desktops, routers, and wireless printers as crucial technology upgrades.

In June, contractors will begin installing new broadband wiring to help libraries make full use of the power of the Maine School and Library Network’s (MSLN) fiber optic network. Some of the libraries will be replacing equipment and wiring that is 10 years old or older.

“This project will help us to achieve the library’s mission of providing access to up-to-date technology for the public,” said Beth Kane, Norway Memorial Library’s director. “Providing reliable high-speed internet, computers, software, printing and scanning services is integral to our being able to serve people seeking work, completing their education and staying in touch with friends and family.”

The Center has contracted with Brian Keene, owner of Canton Point Technologies in Canton, Maine  to source 29 desktops and 19 laptops for the project and to lead the installation and wiring work that will ensure the libraries are fully linked to MSLN. Much like the outdated equipment, old wires have been holding back libraries from accessing higher speed wi-fi via MSLN. Canton Point Technologies will install new, smaller wires that ensure wireless access points are transmitting correctly and able to provide the full speed available through MSLN. Once installations are complete the new computers will be fully wireless.

Software upgrades are also included in this project. The libraries will purchase new Microsoft Office and Adobe Creative suites through the nonprofit clearinghouse TechSoup, and the software cost will count toward each library’s 15% financial contribution to their upgrades. The Center will also purchase nine wireless printers and 17 routers to supply the libraries as part of the project.

Maximizing the reach of this project and making it easier for library members to use these new resources is a top priority. To help make their libraries more inclusive and serve patrons who cannot visit when the library is open, some libraries are positioning wireless routers to reach into their parking lots so people can access the high-speed internet when they need it. Additionally, the new wireless routers will be programmed to help librarians count the number of wi-fi users, which is an important reporting metric when applying for future digital literacy grants and state funding.

Installation is slated to begin this June, with personalized support and technical assistance provided to the participating libraries through the fall. Once installations are completed, the libraries will lead trainings to familiarize their patrons with the new equipment and software. The library project is one part of a series of ongoing digital literacy and inclusion efforts underway in the Maine West region.