By Sarah Nagem
From mobile apps to one-on-one training, public libraries have worked for years to adapt to patrons’ ever-changing technology needs.
In Robeson County, the library system is trying to keep up by launching a program this fall that allows people to borrow laptops just like they borrow books: Just show your library card, and take home a Chromebook for up to two weeks.
The coronavirus pandemic made the digital divide more apparent than ever as people were forced to work and do school assignments from home. That was especially true in Robeson, one of the poorest and most rural counties in North Carolina.
“We feel like it’s really important to be able to give access to the internet to our community,” said Patrick Parker, adult services librarian for the Robeson County Public Library in Lumberton.
About 85% of households in Robeson County had a computer between 2017 and 2021, compared to 92% statewide, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
For those who do have a computer, access to high-speed internet can be a concern. About 84% of Robeson residents have access to internet speeds of at least 100 Mbps, compared to 94.4% statewide, according to research firm BroadbandNow.
The Chromebooks available for checkout from the Robeson County library system aren’t equipped with an internet hotspot, Parker said. But users can log on to networks, including those available at many fast-food restaurants.
The library system, which has several branches throughout the county, started the lender program with grant money from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services, Parker said. The funds were distributed by the State Library of North Carolina.
Parker said he continually heard from library patrons who said they needed access to computers and the internet.
“Adults especially need it for work, for going back to school,” he said.
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The program isn’t available to children, but adults can check out laptops for their kids to use. “We thought it would be good,” Parker said, “especially with students doing online classes with COVID.”
Laptop-checkout programs have become more popular, especially among libraries at colleges and universities. But many public libraries don’t offer them.
The Durham County Library is an exception, offering “technology kits” with backpacks, T-Mobile hotspots and resource guides for searching for jobs, health care services and other topics.
Buncombe County Public Libraries, based in Asheville, started lending laptops more than a year ago as part of an effort to make technology more accessible to residents. That program is also funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
The Robeson County program could be expanded if it’s a hit among library users, Parker said. But so far, few people know about the program. He’s hoping to spread the word.
Parker said some libraries across the country have gotten very creative with their services, lending fishing rods and survival kits – options the Robeson library is considering.
“It’s become a really popular thing for libraries to branch out what we can offer the community,” he said. “We want to remain relevant, because we have so much to offer. We want to keep up with the times.”
But Parker said there’s still plenty of value in spending time at the library. Patrons can fax, scan or print documents, and they can get help with creating resumes and looking for jobs. They can also access genealogy resources.
As for future programs?
“We’re definitely open to suggestions,” Parker said.