Letters from the Road - Day 2

ALA Holding Space Graphic

Hello from the road,

Today I had the honor of speaking with library professionals in Zanesville, Ohio who are diligently working to ensure that rural communities have broadband access.

Prior to the pandemic, the Muskingum County Library played a key role in bridging the Digital Divide by responding to challenges surrounding community connectivity. During the pandemic, local libraries continue to serve as a lifeline for the more than 30 percent of residents without internet access. About 78 percent of surrounding rural areas are unable to access the internet regularly due to issues of accessibility and/or affordability.

The library’s creative and innovative efforts to connect the community are evident as it dispenses reliable 24/7 wifi access and mobile hotspots and builds community partnerships to share digital resources.

Library staff shared stories about how Muskingum County families, job-seekers, telecommuters, and students take advantage of free wifi in library parking lots at all times of the day, using reliable connections to participate in Zoom meetings, distance learning, job interviews, and telemedicine appointments.

Stacey Russell, interim director, Muskingum County Library, shared a letter from a mother of three who frequently traveled five miles to their local library to use the library’s free wifi.

“During this pandemic it has been especially hard having two children in college and one junior high student trying to do schoolwork from home. Receiving texts or emails at home is almost impossible. We sometimes had to stop by the library parking lot long enough to use the free wifi to receive and send out school assignments. Having a library with accessible and reliable internet has been a true lifeline for my children and many others,” the letter said.

Muskingum County Libraries have worked to establish partnerships with local daycare and community organizations to provide children with the digital tools needed to support distance learning and wellbeing. Libraries are providing some organizations with laptops, hotspots, and, in some cases, food.

Also, those who were unable to travel to a library or a community partner could still gain access to library story hours and literacy activities by tuning into local radio stations.

Most library successes take place in the shadows, so I want to shine a national spotlight on Muskingum County Library’s contributions and garner support for their needs with the local community, professional organizations, and elected leaders.

Affordable, high-capacity internet access is critical as library connectivity serves as a lifeline for patrons who need access to digital collections, e-government services, legal information, distance learning, telemedicine, and many other essential community services.

During this virtual tour stop, I was joined by Russell; U.S. Rep. Troy Balderson (R-12); Sen. Tim Schaffer, Ohio State Senate; Donald Mason, mayor, City of Zanesville; Jamie Barker, Southeast Ohio District director, Office of U.S. Senator Rob Portman; and Peter Voderberg, chief, BroadbandOhio, for a roundtable discussion themed Keeping Communities Connected in Ohio and Beyond.

This robust discussion focused on how local libraries provide access to broadband and more traditional tools to keep the community connected. We had an opportunity to discuss federal broadband legislation, such as the Rural Broadband Acceleration Act, bipartisan legislation that directs the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to fund shovel-ready, high-speed internet projects immediately, so consumers can access broadband within a year.

Also, our distinguished guests from Ohio discussed House Bill 13, which addresses the one million Ohioans who lack a reliable internet connection and the 300,000 households that have no broadband options. The legislation will create Ohio’s first-ever Residential Broadband Expansion Program, which will provide grants to offset construction costs and help fuel the expansion of high-speed internet and all broadband services to unserved Ohio households.

The Digital Divide exists in rural America. During today’s event Russell also shared a personal experience. While visiting her family’s farm, she found that creative measures needed to be taken if she wants to use her cellphone. “If you want to use a cellphone out there, you need to stand on a hill, point your device a certain way, and not move to establish a connection.”

We need to take our concerns to the Hill and point lawmakers in the right direction to take action to expand library broadband. Join us as we ask elected officials at all levels to advance connectivity in libraries! Please contact your elected city, state, and federal legislators and share your story about how libraries keep families and students connected.

To learn more about ALA broadband efforts and additional legislation please visit American Libraries.

It is not too late to join us for future discussions. Visit the Holding Space website to register or follow #ALAHoldingSpace for tour updates.