This is a guest post by Katherine Bates.

Libraries have always played a critical community role in offering low-income residents access to information. Although most libraries offer free public internet access, computers are in high demand and often have time limits. Coupled with the fact that one in four households do not have internet access at home, this may explain why many library patrons often gather outside libraries to access public WiFi after normal operating hours.

In response, libraries are developing innovative programs to help close the digital divide. Hotspot Lending Programs offer low-income patrons access to devices that provide wireless broadband internet access at home; these hotspot devices are pocket-sized, easy to use, and connect multiple devices. While the borrowing requirements differ among the different libraries operating these programs, borrowers are generally eligible if they don’t have their own broadband access and are registered in library educational programs.

These lending programs perform a critical role: in addition to providing basic broadband access to low-income residents, they allow patrons to access free e-books and other digital library resources, and they enable users to complete online job applications and perform other critical web-based processes at home. Outreach efforts are also aimed at the elderly and disabled, who often need access to healthcare information.

The New York Public Library (NYPL), the Brooklyn Public Library, and the Queens Borough Public Library are lending WiFi Hot Spots to 10,000 families across New York City who do not currently have internet access at home. The program enables eligible patrons to “check out” WiFi hotspots from the library for up to six months at no cost. Both the device and monthly service fees are fully paid by the NYPL. NYPL will also help patrons access online resources at home.

Another library, the Saint Paul Public Library, is lending their WiFi hotspots for three weeks to those without home broadband access. Saint Paul residents with a Saint Paul Public Library card and less than $10 in library fines are eligible to participate. The library is also lending 100 hotspots to Gordon Parks High School, Central High School and AGAPE High School.

San Mateo County Library is taking things a step further by offering both WiFi hotspots and WiFi hotspot/laptop combos. This program provides wireless hotspots with unlimited data. WiFi hotspot/laptop combos include Microsoft Office 2013, and they can be checked out for up to seven days.

Libraries are vital community institutions. Working in partnership with municipal governments, they are bridging the digital divide and bringing new economic opportunities to residents.

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Originally posted at Cities Speak.

About the Author: Katherine Bates is a Senior Program Manager at the Urban Library Council (ULC). Her focus is on the digital evolution and transformation that urban libraries are undergoing. Founded in 1971, ULC is a membership association of leading public library systems in the U.S. and Canada. While ULC libraries primarily represent urban and suburban settings, lessons from their work are widely adapted by libraries of all sizes, including those in rural settings.