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Wi-Fi in Massachusetts Libraries Helps Bridge the Digital Divide

The following article was written by AARP Massachusetts intern Chloe-Rose Crouch:

The AARP Livable Communities initiative strives to help communities become great places to live for people of all ages via eight “Domains of Livability.” The initiative is a means to identify barriers affecting quality of life for elders and other age groups. When communities make improvements in the eight domains, they work towards making Massachusetts more livable for everyone.  

Thanks to the work of Massachusetts residents across the state, we see positive changes in the domains happening every day.  For example, over seventy public libraries in Massachusetts now offer free public WIFI outside of their building, extending internet connection to their parking lots and front lawns. By doing so, participating libraries work in two critical domains: access to information and outdoor spaces.

Why is WiFi access key to improving the lives of community members, particularly elder adults? A study conducted by Older Adults Technology Services suggests that one in two American seniors live with technological barriers that restrict their access to services, and 22 million seniors do not have access to wireless broadband at home.

“More and more, WiFi is becoming a necessary utility,” says Library Director Lisa Downing from Forbes Public Library in Northampton, MA. While there was some WiFi signal outside the library pre-COVID, an uptick in its use during the pandemic prompted Forbes Library to add WiFi access points outside of their building. “Since it’s our role as a public library to provide access to information, adding these access points seemed like the logical extension of our work,” she says.

Barbara McNamara, Library Director of Memorial Hall Library in Andover, MA, also feels digital inequity became more visible during the pandemic. “When we closed in March people still needed access to WiFi, perhaps more than ever before,” she says, “and I noticed people would huddle against the back door with their smartphones trying to pick up a signal.” In response, the library worked with the Chief Information Officer of the town of Andover to extend the town’s WiFi services to the library parking lot.

Here, McNamara demonstrates an important step in the process of an Age-Friendly project: observing and listening to community members. Since listening and responding to community needs is the root of a project’s success, AARP’s Livable Community Initiative provides the free Engaging Community to Create Community resource guide to support leaders in this process.

Since WiFi is so critical to accessing information, promoting social inclusion, and even for telehealth and COVID vaccine-scheduling, both McNamara and Downing provide examples of what organizations can do in the access to information domain to make their communities more inclusive. “I’ve become aware of the digital divide in our community, and the consequences are severe for those who struggle with digital inequities,” says McNamara, “this is one thing we can do to help address it.”

Bridging the digital divide is a massive undertaking, but McNamara and Downing show us how little steps can lead to bigger changes. They’re both excited to see how their projects will grow in the future. McNamara would like to see the bandwidth extended across all downtown Andover. “We assume that everyone has internet in their homes, but that’s not necessarily true,” says McNamara, “and everyone needs it, from school children doing their homework, to young professionals working at home, to elder adults for access to services.” 

Downing looks forward to safer times for in-person socializing, when the outdoor access points will create outdoor spaces for people to gather. “Post-COVID we hope the project will encourage people to come together, work, or study outside.”

By providing free, outdoor bandwidth, both McNamara and Downing are working to bridge the digital divide for older adults and other community members. “We live in a time where we need to make sure that everyone in our community—young, old, or in-between—have access to technology, whether they can afford to pay for it or not,” says McNamara.

By doing work in the access to information domain, they encourage growth in communities that make Massachusetts great for people of all ages.

To learn more about AARP’s Livable Communities Initiative, click here.   

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