Grant funds research on libraries bridging the digital divide

Janelle Polcyn

To accommodate an age where internet is almost a necessity, public libraries lend out mobile hotspots to help their patrons stay connected.

Radio-television-film professor Sharon Strover will lead a team of researchers from UT, Oklahoma State University and Oklahoma University in studying these hotspot lending programs at 24 libraries in rural areas in Kansas and Maine with a grant of $500,000 from the Institute of Museums and Libraries. 

“The basic goal is to figure out the role that these relatively inexpensive hotspot devices might play in ameliorating the problem that some people have in being able to afford broadband access,” Strover said. “The internet has penetrated so many aspects of our life. It’s no longer just email. It’s embedded in our work, health systems, education, public school operations [and in] routine job obtaining procedures. It’s very difficult for people who do not have some level of internet access and digital literacy to maneuver.”

Loriene Roy is a professor in the School of Information and has also spent a year as the president for the American Library Association. Roy said libraries are shifting from a quiet warehouse of books to active learning areas where the community can learn to salsa dance, check out a CPR dummy or use a computer to help them do homework or search for a job.

“A number of the population who goes to the public library may have no other point of access to the internet,” Roy said. “The digital divide has not gone away. Call it what you like — it still exists. Libraries have often served as having to fill that gap.”

Biochemistry sophomore Denise Mendez visits the Perry-Casteñada Library regularly to take advantage of all of the resources available in the quiet and communal spaces.

“Libraries are still important so [people] can read and know what’s out there and have access to the internet,” Mendez said. “Internet access is super important. Technology has advanced so much, and you need it just to communicate on a daily basis.”

Strover and her team will analyze the effectiveness, sustainability and value of these 24 programs for the allotted time of 20 months and will provide periodical reports to the IML. 

“Libraries are doing really different things from what they used to do,” Stover said. “They’re no longer places where people check out books. People turn to the library for a lot of things these days. This research will investigate where rural libraries fit in a digital environment and where these hotspots fit.”