SARATOGA COUNTY — Saratoga County libraries are taking innovative steps to help connect the unconnected. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted inequities across New York State in regards to how people access information online and use communication technologies. These disparities impacted individuals within a broad range of areas including education, workforce development and healthcare. In simpler terms, as the world was forced into digital spaces for school, work and even healthcare consultations - those without access to these internet-based technologies were left behind.
To combat this divide, more than $6.2 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds have been made available to help libraries and other cultural institutions across the state address this digital divide. Efforts have been made statewide to increase access to the state’s cultural history and expand student access to digital learning materials. Last year, the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) awarded the ARPA funds to the New York State Library to help communities respond directly to the pandemic and related economic and community needs. This year, those funds have been put to use throughout Saratoga County.
For instance, in Schuylerville, where 15% of homes are without broadband internet connection, the Schuylerville Public Library has made it their goal to bridge their town’s digital divide. According to Library Director Caitlin Johnson, “one of the things we did early on was we added additional Wi-Fi hotspots that people can borrow from us, which pretty much are always checked out. We never have any available; that’s a good sign, though.” Furthering the town’s dedicated effort to connect the under-connected, Schuylerville took advantage of the American Library Association’s Transforming Communities grant, which helped install a free-to-use public Wi-Fi network in the Fort Hardy Recreation Park.
In Corinth, the Corinth Free Library is working on an innovative project to bring affordable internet access to the entire community. It plans to install a solar powered bus stop in front of its building equipped with seating and USB charging outlets, enabling patrons to access the library’s free broadband when the library is closed. The project received some money from the village upfront, and the library applied for a grant for the rest. “We’ve got our fingers crossed. We will know about that in a couple of weeks,” said Head of Children’s Services Michael Hadfield in a statement this month.
As the world races into a digital future, ensuring equal access to opportunities in digital spaces will become increasingly more important. And New York State has a long way to go. There are 681,773 unemployed individuals in New York, of which at least 224,985 lack foundational digital skills, according to recent findings from the National Skills Coalition. For more information on what towns across the state are doing to bridge the digital divide, visit: www.yourlibrary.org.