Tanisha Santiago says the injury to her writing arm in a car accident on Christmas Day threatened to cause her to “fail all my classes.”
What saved the Gordon Parks High School senior was a small device she didn’t even know existed. Thanks to the St. Paul libraries, she took home for free a powerful little gadget that let her do schoolwork online, even though her family lacks Wi-Fi.
Santiago benefited from a leap that is being made by libraries across the country: lending portable hot spots to library patrons so those without Wi-Fi can go online from home for weeks or months at a time.
The metro area so far appears slow to embrace a trend described as “huge” by the president of the American Library Association (ALA). The firm recommended by the ALA as a source of steeply discounted portable hot spots to libraries reports that about 360 systems across the country have taken up its offer, but only one in Minnesota.
And that one, the St. Paul Public Library, is warning it may have to withdraw its units unless it can find a sustainable funding source.
Debate over whether to offer hot spots is part of the larger challenge faced by libraries to keep up with a changing digital landscape. Minnesota libraries in the past decade have roughly doubled their number of in-house computers, adding thousands. But as more and more patrons bring their own tablets and laptops to the library for in-house Wi-Fi, use of desktop computers has dropped by millions of sessions a year.
A mobile hot spot is a gadget about the size of human hand that can connect 15 nearby devices to the internet, pulling signals from cell towers to avoid the need for wiring.
At a time when some library systems are seeing a decline in conventional services, libraries that do offer hot spots say they are the hottest item they lend. Those libraries still on the sidelines, however, say they are leery for a number of reasons.
First, library patrons commonly endure long waits for the units. With 130 units available through the St. Paul libraries, holds can last months even though most units can be retained for only a week.
And then there’s the issue of finding a reliable funding source to buy them. Many systems offering hot spots get grants to do so, but librarians worry about being forced to yank the popular option for lack of funding after users get accustomed to it.
The need is undeniable: Librarians can see it as they open for the day and lock up at night.
“Before our branches open, in warm weather you see people leaning up against the building with their device, logging in,” said Dakota County’s chief librarian, Margaret Stone. In St. Paul, librarian Rebecca Ryan has seen people sitting on steps outside a library with a laptop.
Across the nation, ALA President Julie Todaro said, programs to lend portable hot spots to bring the internet to low-income households are becoming hugely popular. “In Brooklyn, in Atlanta, in Kansas City, libraries are stepping in — many, many are going in that direction,” she said.
Portable — but pricey
Librarians stress that the whole world of information and connection is switching online. Sixty percent of the reference books you used to see in libraries are gone, Todara said; they are available online only. The paper tax forms that libraries used to dispense are gone too, said Phoebe Larson of the St. Paul system. People now file mostly online.
“We’ll send you to the IRS for them if you want paper these days,” she said.
Seattle Public Library officials weren’t sure there would be much demand when they began lending hot spots, but within hours “there were hundreds and hundreds of holds on them,” said spokeswoman Andra Addison. The system now offers 825 units, and still the waits can last weeks, she said.
A Twin Cities librarian gasped when told that, based on the online catalog for the Denver Public Library, it looked like 634 patrons were waiting recently for 36 units.
Long waits were the main reason mentioned by Johannah Genett, a division manager for the Hennepin County Library, to explain why the Hennepin system is hesitant about hot spot lending. Hennepin, while upgrading broadband speeds in library buildings, is more inclined to work with partners such as school districts furnishing hot spots to low-income students.
Library systems such as St. Paul’s often get outside grants for special services but run into trouble when the grants vaporize. “It’s very difficult to take away a library service” once patrons have grown accustomed to it, Stone said.
Conversely, the ALA notes that libraries can find much cheaper hot spot alternatives than the average person would get on the open market. The association points its members to a firm called Mobile Beacon, which provides nonprofits with $10 a month unlimited data plans; commercial providers charge $50 or more a month.
The units themselves can cost libraries as little as $18 upfront, said Mobile Beacon spokeswoman Lauren Yergeau.
Minnesota has been willing to subsidize the digital divide in the state’s rural areas. The Legislature last year set aside $35 million for grants to bring digital service to unserved or underserved areas of the state. A sliver of that, about $171,000, landed in the upscale Hennepin County suburb of Medina, where incomes tower over those of Edina but large estates can make connectivity pricey.
For libraries, targeting hot spots to disadvantaged patrons vs. general library patrons is another issue. St. Paul performs the delicate dance by offering hot spots only at inner-city branches, but then not denying them to anyone.
The prospect of St. Paul residents continuing to borrow hot spots has improved just in the past few weeks. Funds have been found to allow the library to offer hot spots for the rest of the school year for sure, and perhaps through the end of 2017.
“We realize it’s such a popular program. Patrons love it. ... We’ll work on more sustainable funding,” Larson said.
And to people who take Wi-Fi for granted, said Santiago, just try living without easy access.
“A lot of jobs these days don’t even have paper applications,” she said. “They tell you to apply online.”