People in rural communities are often disadvantaged by lack of accessible, affordable broadband connection to the internet. This problem is compounded for low- and moderate-income residents who are unable to afford computers and internet access in their homes, and often rely on their local libraries to stay connected.
Limited by tight budgets and lack of in-house technology staff, many rural libraries work to meet public demand with outdated equipment, software, and internet connections -- contributing to a decrease in digital inclusion, or the ability of all people to access the knowledge, skills, and equipment needed to benefit from evolving information and communication technologies.”
Broadband isn’t just about economic development. Access to computers and online resources is vital to children and adults completing crucial everyday tasks like homework, applying for jobs, and accessing health, social and municipal services. Equity and the economy are both reasons why the Center has supported broadband projects in Millinocket and played a leadership role in a multifaceted effort to increase broadband access, and digital literacy and inclusion through the Maine West initiative.
After helping to lead a comprehensive Maine West broadband planning process, in summer 2018 the Center secured a grant from the Stephen & Tabitha King Foundation to upgrade public computer and internet access services in 11 Maine West area public libraries. The Center launched the program by interviewing librarians to understand their technology needs and the level of support required for successful technology upgrades. Many of the libraries involved in this project will be replacing equipment 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 high-speed, reliable internet, computers and software, printing and scanning services, is integral to our being able to serve people seeking work, completing their education, staying in touch with friends and family, and this time of year filing their taxes. We are very pleased to be part of this important project,” said Kane.
As planned, through this project the Center will cover at least half the cost of purchasing new equipment such as desktop computers, and wireless printers and routers, as well as the latest versions of popular productivity software like Microsoft Office and Adobe Creative. To maximize savings the Centers will purchase hardware in bulk and source software like Adobe Creative suite through Tech Soup, a clearinghouse that provides non-profits and educational institutions with low-cost access to a wide range of leading software.
Each library has different needs, ranging from Waterford Library which serves a population of 1,500 with two public computers, to the Norway Memorial Library which serves a population of 5,000 with 16 public computers. Each of the 11 libraries is developing a proposal for new computers, software packages, wireless printers and routers to meet its specific needs.
In addition to supporting digital literacy and broadband access for library patrons, the upgraded equipment will benefit Maine West librarians by tracking data on the number daily users, which is an important metric for demonstrating community engagement in funding proposals. Many libraries are currently unable to track this information.
Jared Leadbetter, Maine State Library’s technology consultant, will visit each participating librarian to view their facilities and help refine their proposals. “It’s a real boon to have the state library’s support of this project through Jared’s participation,” said Mike Wilson, senior program director at the Northern Forest Center. “His expertise and input will help us make the most of this opportunity to increase public computer access and digital literacy in the Maine West region.”
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 help 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.
The Maine Community Foundation provided additional funding for this project through its first-ever round of broadband grants. Each library will provide a small financial match to help complete the project.
Photo courtesy of Norway Memorial Library