These days, one of the most in-demand items for checkout at St. Paul libraries isn’t bound, downloadable or stored on a disc. Rather, it comes in a little cardboard box that only makes pit stops at the various library branches, where it goes straight into patrons’ pick-up cubbies.
On Tuesday afternoon, the Merriam Park library branch had two of these devices — portable internet hotspots — on site, awaiting their next temporary home. Demand for these devices, which use cellular data to allow a computer (or several nearby computers) to connect to the internet, is higher than the libraries can keep up with.
Looking at current circulation data, Mark Kile, manager of the Merriam Park branch, estimated that those who have placed one on hold will end up waiting for a couple of weeks before their request is fulfilled. That’s because, with one-time grant funding, library staff purchased 130 hotspots, along with a service plan to keep them turned on. They housed them at four locations: the Rondo and Merriam Park library branches, and two St. Paul Public Schools. But inventory is down, demand is up and funding is in question.
Reluctant to discontinue the program, staff and those who work for the library’s fundraising partner — Friends of the St. Paul Public Library — are hoping to secure city funding to sustain, and expand, the hotspot program.
“We’re just hoping that the funding doesn’t dry up, because it’s a hugely popular thing,” Kile said. “It’s better than checking out a book … it’s like a universal library.”
A lone initiative
The St. Paul library system initially secured funding for its hotspot program in 2014, through a Knight Foundation grant opportunity focused on positively impacting folks sitting along the Green Line, the light rail line that runs through downtown St. Paul.
“It’s a priority for St. Paul Public Libraries to work on closing that digital divide — to make sure people know how to access and use the internet,” says Phoebe Larson, communications and digital services director for the library system.
When that one-time funding dried up in 2016, library administration proposed cutting the program. But branch managers spoke up, stressing how the hotspots had become one of their most-circulated items. So they found a way to fund the program through the end of this year. Moving forward, they’re banking on city funding. According to Kim Horton, director of marketing and communications for the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library, Mayor Chris Coleman has already agreed to include funding for the hotspot program in the city budget for 2018.
Pending passage, Larson says they’d like to expand inventory to at least 150 hotspots. Funding from the city would cover the purchase of new devices, along with the $10 per month operating fee tied to each device.
Unlike other items that may experience a surge in demand, like a piece of popular fiction or a new DVD — which may start out with a wait list 100 names deep that eventually dies down to the point where these items can be found on the shelf — hotspots never make it to the shelves. According to the circulation manager, even in a lull, the waitlist for hotspots still ran 38 names deep.
For all of 2016, patrons checked out hotspots from the library system about 1,300 times, Larson said. This count includes repeat customers. And as of last Friday, 72 patrons were on the hotspot wait list.
Those who check out a portable hotspot get to keep it for a week. Those who don’t return them on time accrue a daily $1 late fee. And 18 days after the due date, the library shuts off internet service to any overdue hotspot.
Over the years, Kile says they’ve lost about 30 hotspots that were checked out and simply never returned. For now, however, the inventory circulating through the library system will remain about the same. Because of the funding uncertainty, St. Paul’s Central and Gordon Parks high schools, which had a collective stash of 30 hotspots, returned their devices to the library system rather than commit to picking up the costs of the data plan on their own.
Bob Andresen, a tech staffer at Gordon Parks, an alternative school serving anywhere from 200 to 220 students at any given time, says the decision to return the library’s hotspots was also motivated by the fact that his school made the decision to keep all iPads on-site this year.
“We have a very mobile population in this building. To try and keep up with getting the iPads in students’ hands and then getting them back was extremely time consuming and not very successful,” he said.
Even so, Andresen recognizes that lots of his students — many of whom qualify for free-and-reduced-price lunch — don’t have internet access at home. Some of them talk about trying to use their own devices, or devices they check out from the school, at home by tapping into their neighbors’ internet plans, he said.
“A lot of our students are trying to get jobs, and the applications are online,” he said, adding he could foresee the student demand for home-based internet access growing if and when his school transitions to a project-based model that would place a greater emphasis on independent research.
According to the the district’s most recent Personalized Learning through Technology survey, 83 percent of students who qualify for free-and-reduced-price lunch have access to the internet at home, compared to 93 percent of students who don’t qualify.
Citing a 2016 study conducted by the Metropolitan Library Service Agency, Larson says the digital divide persists outside of the city’s school-aged population, with nearly 10 percent — or approximately 30,000 people — reporting they don’t have internet access at home. Many of these respondents come from low-income households, where people are looking for work.
Having to travel to someplace with free internet access, like a local library, can make things like job hunting and filing taxes more burdensome, she said.
“Think about it, trying to find work without internet access. It’s almost impossible. That’s all online now,” she said, noting the same goes for “educational resources and database things that sort of give you a leg up.”
While Eric Holmberg didn’t grow up in Minnesota, he recently took to Twitter to praise the St. Paul Public Library system for making sure patrons can check out a hotspot. He came across a sign advertising the program while working as an intern in the Twin Cities last summer. The Nebraska native, now a senior at the University of Chicago, recalled his own experience as a high schooler walking to a nearby McDonald’s that had free wifi, just so he could do his school work.
The inconvenience was temporary, as his family had just moved and it took a couple of weeks for his parents to get the internet up and running in their new home. But barriers to internet access continue to impact many students.
“I wish this was a thing in 2007, when my teachers evolved into the digital age, but public policy/services didn’t,” he said of the St. Paul library’s hotspot program in a Tweet.