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New England libraries look to expand internet access to all

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With a population of fewer than 1,700, the rural western Massachusetts town of Colrain has limited access to something people in other areas may take for granted — the internet.

Many residents have come to depend on the town’s Griswold Memorial Library for Wi-Fi and other types of internet access need for research and submitting basic forms with medical providers or employers.The closing of the library for several months during the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated how vital those services had become for town residents, who began using the library parking lot as a place to access free Wi-Fi.

“Most people in our town did not have broadband access at all when the pandemic hit, and here folks were trying to figure out how to work from home, how to have their kids connected and in school, how to participate in local government. So oftentimes that was just pushing up outside of the library and using our free Wi-Fi connection with whatever devices that they had,” Griswold Library Director Chelsea Jordan told And Another Thing.

One of those people accessing the internet from the library parking lot was Colrain resident Cindy Weeks. In her home, where Weeks cares for her aging mother, there is no access cellular telephone signals either, and cable television is frequently interrupted.

“The library has just been so important for the ability to communicate with other people to be able to pull into the library and participate in a Zoom meeting, to have access to information, to be able to research something,” Weeks told And Another Thing. “Even to look up something on my phone. There's no such thing as a phone book anymore. You don't think about these things until you don't have access to them.”

The small Griswold Memorial Library is among thousands in western New England libraries that expect to make deep investments in expanding internet and other computer services as a result of the Digital Equity Act, included in the infrastructure investment plan approved by congress last week. The act $2.75 billion for improving internet access, helping rural communities obtain broadband access, and providing training on using the internet to gather and share information.

Those are challenges libraries have already begun to address, according to librarians and library backers, who argue they are the institutions best prepared to move that work forward.

The incoming president of the Public Library Association has set the goal of improving service particularly to a few groups of people.

"One is young people. Another is people of color who disproportionately face barriers. So, for example, about eight in 10 whites own a computer, compared to with just 58 percent of blacks and 57% of Hispanics, as well as elders,” said Maria McCauley, Cambridge Public Library Director and president-elect of the Public Library Association.

This episode was first broadcast on November 10, 2021.

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