How and Why Oakland Public Library Is Loaning Out Hotspots

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Over 500 libraries have now requested Mobile Beacon hotspot product donations through TechSoup. After the Oakland Public Library placed a big donation request, we thought we'd call them to find out how it's going with their hotspot lending program. Here's what we found out.

The Oakland Public Library (OPL) is one of the large urban public libraries in the San Francisco Bay Area. It has 17 locations, a significant African American Museum and Library, and a large tool lending library as well. TechSoup for Libraries recently reported on the library's innovative Ready, Set, Connect! program, which provides technology career training to local teens in cooperation with the nonprofit Community Technology Network.

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OPL's Check Out the Internet Program

I chatted with OPL's Celia Jackson, children's librarian at West Oakland Branch Library. She has been watching with interest how the hotspot loan program has been going. Her branch is one of three locations that piloted the library's Check Out the Internet program.

All the locations chosen serve the poorer parts of Oakland, which is the fourth most ethnically diverse city in the United States. Just over a quarter of the population live under the poverty line. Most poor residents are under the age of 18, and many don't have broadband at home, just like the 33 percent of Americans nationwide that don't have access at home.

Jackson says that she loves working in West Oakland, having come from a small New England town with little diversity. "I'm in a very diverse place. We're right across the street from the historic Black Panthers headquarters. It's fun to see the Black Panther tours come through."

Why the Library Got Interested in Hotspots

Library Director Gerry Garzon said this in the press release that announced the program:

With this new program, we hope to reach youth who might not have access to the internet at home, people who need access to apply for a job or housing, or just anyone who wants to connect in all the ways that many of us take for granted. We live in a diverse community with a variety of information needs, and bringing solutions from the library out to where folks are is part of the OPL mission.

Celia Jackson told me that the need for home broadband was pretty evident, especially among young patrons. She describes it as an "aching need to be connected," particularly when the library is not open.

How Patrons Use Hotspots

Jackson told me that when patrons first see the flyer about Check Out the Internet, they are amazed that they can check out a hotspot for three weeks. There is a vigorous demand for them. Her library opened the pilot with 15 hotspots in circulation but quickly found that they have enough demand for at least 50. Jackson reports that people tell her that they use their mobile Internet for several different things:

  • Starting a business
  • Taking them on trips
  • Streaming media
  • Watching soccer
  • Sharing connectivity with friends

The Coolness Factor

As a children's librarian, Jackson is naturally interested in how her young patrons react to the hotspots they can take home. She says there's a "coolness factor on hotspots: 10- or 11-year-olds are a hard audience, but they really want the hotspots. They can wire themselves and their friends up. Being able to hook up friends and family is empowering to them."

Jackson says. "The hotspots are an unqualified success. They are very intuitive and easy to use." She also reports that patrons are reluctant to return them. When the library gets the hotspots back, the patrons get right back on the list, even though there is a two- to three-week wait. One headache, however, has been getting the charging cords back with the hotspots.

How the Program Got Going and How It Works

Check Out the Internet started with an initial grant from the Friends of the Oakland Public Library. The program is moving from its pilot phase to more permanent implementation with the addition of more Mobile Beacon hotspots from TechSoup.

The library checks hotspots out like other circulation items with a three-week loan period. Patrons must have a library account without too many fines or a block on their account. Jackson finds that keeping the arrangement simple is helpful. She says, "I think the hotspot program elevates us in our patrons' eyes. We bring the library service right to the present day. They can't get enough of the hotspots."

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Requesting Mobile Beacon Hotspot Product Donations Through TechSoup

Mobile Beacon hotspots provide 4G LTE broadband Internet connectivity for up to 10 computers or Wi-Fi-enabled smartphones and tablets. They work anywhere you can receive a Sprint signal.

This product donation is available to U.S. public libraries and nonprofits. A single hotspot is available for an $18.00 admin fee. Ten are available for a $108 admin fee. Each hotspot requires a Mobile Beacon 4G LTE service plan at the current nonprofit pricing of $120 for 12 months of unlimited service.