February 16, 2018

Digital Inclusion in Topeka | Field Reports

Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library
Photo credit: Davidleeking

At the Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library (TSCPL), KS, we call our website our digital offerings and our social media channels our “digital branch,” and we want everyone in Shawnee County to be able to access the digital content and the services the library offers to its customers.

Shawnee County covers approximately 550 square miles, and there are more than 178,000 residents, mostly in Topeka, which is the state capital. Unlike many urban areas of the country, our city and county don’t have equitable broadband Internet access. The more urban parts of Topeka have adequate Internet connectivity, but the more rural areas we serve have very poor and/or pricey coverage.

In the urban center of Topeka, there are less fortunate people who can’t afford broadband Internet or the computer or tablet they would need to access it.

The library is working in two areas to improve broadband access in the county. First, we are collaborating with city and county officials, the Joint Economic Development Organization, and Heartland Visioning, a local urban planning organization, to jump-start much-needed improvements in community broadband access. One example of these efforts is to hire a consultant to help with city and county broadband planning. The library helped create the Request for Proposal (RFP), which is out now.

Second, TSCPL is breaking down barriers so that more people can access the Internet, which include lack of broadband access, lack of a device, and lack of training.

The library is currently working with the Topeka Housing Authority (THA) on a pilot project to help bridge our local digital divide, assisting people who don’t have a device, Internet connectivity, or adequate instruction, which puts them at a significant disadvantage. We are modeling our pilot on a similar project in the Kansas City area, called Connecting for Good.

Our effort includes four elements:

  1. Computer Training Lab: Deer Creek Village, our first THA community venture, has a community center in which TSCPL has installed 12 computers in a lab setting.
  2. Refurbished Computers: While the computer lab is a great community asset, being able to give THA residents access to low-cost computers is another goal. The library is working to sell its decommissioned computers to THA and then work with Washburn Technical College to refurbish them at low cost.
  3. Digital Literacy Training: We are finalizing a training program that will begin this fall to provide those who purchase the refurbished equipment with basic computer classes. The library has two full-time trainers who have experience working with beginners.
  4. Low-cost Internet Access: The library and THA were chosen to partner with Cox Communications, the predominant cable provider in the area, to participate in the PLA/Cox Connect2Compete program. This offers a low-cost option for families to bring Internet into their homes. Many of our low-income households can’t afford broadband Internet and are unable to make use of the library’s free resources.

One of the library’s goals in the coming years is to enable everyone in its service area to live their best life. One way to do that is through the ability to access content that will be of use. In today’s online world, some of that content is in a variety of digital formats.

That’s why TSCPL is helping to bridge our local digital divide. We want to make sure everyone in our area can connect to the library, to the web, and, therefore, to the world.

Rob Banks is COO, and David Lee King is Digital Services Director, Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library, KS. King is also a 2008 LJ Mover & Shaker

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