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NYC Libraries Hope To Bridge The Digital Divide With Wi-Fi Rental Program

Thousands of Internet hubs will soon be available for checkout.

NYC Libraries Hope To Bridge The Digital Divide With Wi-Fi Rental Program
[Photo: Flickr user (vincent desjardins)]

Visit your local library these days, and it’s quickly clear what’s in demand: The stacks are empty, the computers are jammed.

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“At every branch you walk into, every computer is being used all the time,” Anthony Marx, president of the New York Public Library, told the Wall Street Journal. “As more and more of what the library offers moves online, it became obvious that there was a problem.”

Now Marx, along with his counterparts at the Queens Library and the Brooklyn Public Library (New York Public Library operates branches in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island), is introducing a new Wi-Fi rental program that will provide residents with Internet access at the same time that it signals an evolving, digital-era mission for the library as civic institution. The program will launch with 10,000 Sprint-powered hubs at select libraries across the city, with rental periods of as long as six months.

As more work and life activities shift to the browser, households without Internet access are left behind. “Whether you’re a parent looking for a job, a child working on a school project, or a family looking for information on services, broadband access is no longer a luxury–it’s a necessity,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement.

According to Marx, an estimated 2.5 million New York City residents can’t afford broadband Internet access at home. Library officials say they often see visitors sitting outside branches before they open and after they close, trying to do work within range of Wi-Fi networks designed for library computer labs.

The program comes at a time of identity crisis for public libraries. Hundreds are closing their doors, and those that remain are fighting to maintain their funding. In some cases, libraries are replacing books with maker spaces and other experimental repurposings.

City officials expect the Wi-Fi rental program to cost $2.6 million in its first year. Private partners and nonprofits have donated $1.5 million to cover that bill, including a $1 million gift from Google.

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About the author

Staff writer Ainsley (O'Connell) Harris covers the business of technology with a focus on financial services and education. Follow her on Twitter at @ainsleyoc.

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