Libraries bridging the digital divide

  • Laura Abrahamsen, director of Francestown's George Holmes Bixby Memorial Library, uses a Kindle in one of the library's reading rooms. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • The Peterborough Town Library. Staff photo by Ben Conant

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 1/22/2020 8:30:50 PM

Public technology is one of a library’s most important services, according to Peterborough Town Library director Corinne Chronopoulos.

“If I had to pick five things that we offered, that would be number one,” she said.

The region’s libraries serve a vital role in an area that has inconsistent access to internet at home.

Library directors Laura Abrahamsen of Francestown’s George Holmes Bixby Memorial Library, Donna Straitliff of Rindge’s Ingalls Memorial Library, and Cindy Jewett of Antrim’s James A. Tuttle Library also spoke on the significance of the digital services that libraries provide their communities.

“You see people parked outside on Main Street using the WiFi,” Abrahamsen said, a pattern that Straitliff also observes when she comes in an hour before the library opens. 

“It's a 24-hour service,” Chronopoulos said. “My own husband has driven down because it's a better upload speed than at home.”

“When people are new into town and have a wait period before their home’s hooked up, we're their sole access,” Straitliff said. 

Chronopoulos knows that the library is the sole source of internet for many of her patrons. She said that the seven computer terminals are in use at the library “from the moment we open til we close.” And many patrons who work remotely go to the library when they want to work near other people, she said. 

Hardware and instruction

“Not everybody has to own everything themselves,” Abrahamsen said, saying the library’s role in providing technologies for public use besides internet, such as access to a printer and scanner. 

Patrons often come to the Peterborough library to send a PDF, or to complete a legal document that requires printing and scanning, Chronopoulos said.

Peterborough library staff routinely provide necessary instruction for patrons’ computer needs, including help with setting up email accounts and electronic resumes, or doing taxes.

The Antrim library expanded their services to include notary access for that reason, Jewett said.

Bridging the entertainment gap

“[Patrons] rely on us for entertainment, absolutely,” Jewett said.

Patrons in their 30s request library cards and exclusively use them to access digital content. 

“Technology is moving so fast, we try to keep up with what people want,” she said. “We have access to e-books, audiobooks, downloaded films, comic books, and databases to read the latest People magazine if you want to.”

Digital materials are slowly growing in their proportion of the library’s overall collection, Jewett said, but this poses a difficulty in rural areas where infrastructure isn’t keeping pace with national trends towards streaming services. Even while she expands access to downloadable materials, she’s also catering to patrons with no ability to stream video at home, or audio on their phones – a consideration shared by the librarians in Francestown, Peterborough and Rindge.

“It impacts how I build the collection,” Abrahamsen said. 

In Rindge, Straitliff said the DVD collection is “probably the highest circulating collection in the library.”

The Antrim library maintains a collection of 2,600 DVD’s and receives frequent requests for audio books on CD, Jewett said, but she’s beginning to have difficulty finding some materials on anything other than MP3s nowadays. ​​​​

Staying current

“The government is really pushing people to do their census work online,” Straitliff said. 

Currently, the four public access computers at the Rindge library all run Windows 7, she said, and they recently received a Library Census Equity Grant to update some hardware and purchase additional Chromebooks in advance of the 2020 Census rollout.

In Antrim, Jewett is currently applying for a grant to get mobile hotspots patrons can check out in order to have internet access at home, and would also like Chromebooks for patrons to use while at the library. She envisions people being able to sit at a chair or a table and spreading out their papers by taking advantage of the library’s coffee area instead of being limited to the computer bank.

Quality of speed

“We have pretty reliable access right now,” at the Rindge library, Straitliff said, but believes speed could improve if the town adopts a municipal fiber optic network in March.

“We’re talking 1G upload and download speeds, which will make everyone's productivity better, both patrons and staff.” she said, adding the agreement, if approved by voters, would serve town buildings at no charge. 

Currently, she said the library boasts a download speed of 50 mbps and an upload speed of 22 mbps through Consolidated Communications.

“We're probably one of the fastest served in town,” she said, and sees faster speeds as potentially attracting new patrons.

Abrahamsen initially received some complaints about the internet speed when she started at the Francestown library in July, but said that Comcast agreed to boost their speed at no extra charge and it’s been working well since then, with a download speed of 59 mbps and an upload of 11 mbps.

The basement and second floor of the library have inconsistent connectivity, she said, and she’d like to make it a little more consistent.

“We could relocate or add a router and probably make coverage in the building better,” she said.

The Peterborough Town Library has internet that’s “a workable speed for most of what people use the library internet for,” Chronopoulos said.

She acknowledges, however, that uploading speeds can be slow.

Tim Brezovec, the Peterborough library’s IT specialist, said Comcast guarantees a download speed of 25 mbps for free, although he said he’s tested and observed higher speeds. 

“The public library will always be … an affordable access point for internet,” Chronopoulos said.

As well as technological hardware and instruction, she added.

“Today, you have to have the internet to participate in modern society,” she said, for medical appointments, job applications or receiving electronic receipts. “It’s vital that every town supports their public library and supports that source of internet.”

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

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