Last week NPR’s morning edition did a story on a Tennessee library that lends Wi-fi hotspots. Spring Hill, Tennessee is a smaller than where I live. Previously I’d only read about urban libraries in Chicago and New York lending wi-fi. And those programs, according to an article I found on Spring Hill’s unique initiative, are limited to patrons who meet certain criteria and the wi-fi is limited as well. Spring HIll’s, by comparison, is open to all patrons and the wi-fi is unlimited, even geographically. The library partnered with cellular company T-Mobile to achieve this. There’s no mention of the upfront costs for the hardware, but the NPR piece mentions that the data alone costs $10,000 a year.
Cost aside, I wondered about whether this fits a library’s mission. Yes, libraries connect people with resources and information. But in nearly all cases, our resources are available to everyone, whether they check things out or not. I sat next to the director of a small town library in New Hampshire at a conference a couple of years ago and she had recently put tables outside, after noticing people hanging out near the building after the library closed. They were using the wi-fi.
I’m not sure what the answer is — whether libraries should be investing in technology to lend it out or if towns and municipalities should fund wi-fi in a greater variety of places — not only libraries, but other public spaces — instead. Or whether libraries should extend their wi-fi beyond their walls for patrons to use anytime. Lending hotspots, even in such a generous program as Spring Hill’s, means that a limited number of patrons can borrow it, for a limited time. Which doesn’t seem to me like the best use of resources.
I get that the internet is necessary, and I can attest that we have patrons who need to get online to access legal documents, apply for jobs, complete assignments, even fill out and file time sheets. But Spring Hill’s story strikes me as yet another way libraries are being redefined according to needs that have been created by the cutting back of other public services, and by the economy — the NPR article points out that there are housing developments that don’t have internet connection available yet. Unspoken was the reason: generally a service or product isn’t available because a company has decided it’s not profitable.
And libraries pick up the slack. We offer daytime shelter to the homeless because social services have been cut. We offer computers for filing job applications because the unemployment office doesn’t have enough. Or provide homework help and after school programs because of cuts to schools, and because families can’t afford private programs. I’m not saying we shouldn’t step up, but it seems to me that we risk diluting ourselves, and that if these are services the public wants, they should look hard at elected representatives who cut them elsewhere and expect libraries to provide them instead. Often with no additional funding. I’m again struck that in the name of making ourselves “relevant” we grow further away from what makes us libraries.
What is your library doing that was once the purvey of another federal, state, or local agency? Do you lend wi-fi? Or make it more convenient for patrons to access it after hours? How can libraries best serve the public — by sticking to what we do best, or by continuing to stop up gaps left in the public service sector?